Inspired by Rosario and the bloggers of the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panel, I decided to read some of this year’s Man Booker longlist. Rebecca, one of the shadow panelists, has a good overview of the list at Book Riot.
I’d only read one book on the list–The Sellout, by Paul Beatty–so I don’t expect to be able to read them all before the shortlist is announced September 13. But once I started, I got a little obsessed. I requested whatever my library had available and bought several others. At least there is nothing quite as chunky as last year’s winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, or A Little Life. The book I am most likely to take a pass on is Coetzee’s Schooldays of Jesus, which is both a sequel and post-apocalyptic.
There were intriguing connections among my first picks (totally on the basis of what came in first at the library) that came out of seeing them as elements of a single list. No proper reviews here, just reflections.
Michiko Kakutani compared Ian McGuire’s The North Water to The Revenant and Miriam at The Little Professor called it Moby-Bear. It’s a grim adventure tale of a 19th-century whaling journey where pretty much everything goes wrong. There’s a nasty villain on board, a plot to sink the ship for insurance money, and then there’s Nature, definitely with a capital N and not in the least maternal. “Cinematic” is an apt descriptor: McGuire’s writing is vivid, his focus is on action rather than introspection, and his pace is breathless. The book isn’t billed as a thriller, but that’s more or less what it is.
I listened to the audio narrated by John Keating, and while his reading is good, I found his voice too tenor and nasal to suit the rough characters and salty language. (It didn’t help that he read Jo Walton’s Farthing series, which I ended up hating).
I zipped through this and it was definitely engrossing, but I guess for me it erred on the side of “life is nasty, brutish and short” without the balance of more positive human qualities. The main character, Sumner, is a disgraced Army doctor who did something that essentially makes him feel dishonored (whether it was really his fault is less clear). In embarking on this whaling voyage, is he looking for escape? redemption? (Miriam’s review is good on this question). He certainly doesn’t find redemption, and while he reinvents himself, he doesn’t escape anything. The book seemed to say “there isn’t a lot of decency in the world, and what there is can’t help us much.”
The North Water opens with a couple of murders and the sexual assault of a child (by the above-mentioned villain, Drax). My initial feeling was “not another neo-Victorian novel that insists on putting in all the sex and violence the Victorians supposedly left out to balance the scales.” (It also puts in almost every bodily fluid you can think of; pretty sure this wins the prize for most uses of “fecal” in any book I’ve read). This happens a lot of often leaves me feeling the balance has tipped too far–it renders the sex and violence mundane and uninteresting. But in the end I found McGuire’s book more complex than that. Colm Toibin has a really interesting review in which he suggests that
there is, behind the narrative, a theory being worked out of how historical fiction can be credibly managed now. Although there are no anachronisms in the book, there are also no long, wearying pages describing the clothing of the period, or the system of belief, or set pieces about the political or social background.
I think this is just right and a great strength of the book. We do see how whaling works, because McGuire focuses so much on action, but the book isn’t loaded down with exposition (which is perhaps part of how it eludes being a pastiche of Melville and Patrick O’Brien). This is a book that feels as if it accomplished exactly what it aims at, not a bad measure of prize-worthiness.
Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves, is also historical fiction, set in 1920s Alabama. It’s more conventional than The North Water (but also mostly avoids “look at my research” exposition). I was intrigued by the premise: Roscoe Martin, a former power company employee, tries to save his wife’s family farm by illegally tapping into the power lines and electrifying the thresher. It works, too, until a young power company employee is electrocuted when he discovers Roscoe’s line. (It reminded me of the part of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography about how bringing electricity to the farms of Texas transformed people’s lives).
My favorite thing in this book was Roscoe’s time in prison, how it chips away at him in ways both good and bad–some of what he loses is ego. It’s another pretty grim story, but there’s some mercy and forgiveness here, too. It’s a fuller picture of humanity than McGuire’s, but at the same time I didn’t always find the characters and their motivations plausible: Roscoe’s wife Marie, for instance. It’s not a bad book, but I didn’t think it was special either.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is essentially a character study that builds to a thrillery ending. Eileen is neither likeable nor admirable, though I did find her a little (horrifyingly) relatable. Like The North Water, this is a book full of bodily functions and the character’s ruminations on them. Hey, we’ve all had those moments. Haven’t we? Well, Eileen and I have, which somehow made me feel better.
Eileen is a young woman working in a boys’ prison and living with her alcoholic father, whom she keeps provided with gin but otherwise mostly ignores. The house is a mess, she’s wearing her dead mother’s clothes, she’s miserable and stuck. Until the beautiful Rebecca comes along and changes Eileen’s life in a matter of days. I won’t spoil how. Nothing much happens until that last day, but because the book is narrated by an older Eileen, we know something will happen to change her situation, and this built enough tension to keep me going through the early chapters.
I found Eileen a somewhat unreliable narrator: old Eileen both mocks and sympathizes with young Eileen. I wasn’t sure if she was sometimes exaggerating her youthful woes, just how bad her childhood was, but also wasn’t sure how much the older Eileen had changed and learned, how clearsighted she was about her earlier self. Maybe she just moved on. That ambiguity added a lot of interest to the book. It made me think about whom we sympathize with, and what routes out of a traumatic childhood we admire and celebrate. Not Eileen’s–and yet, she survives and finds a way out.
Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton reminded me of both earlier Strout books I read and liked: like Amy and Isabelle, it’s a mother-daughter book, and like Olive Kitteridge, it’s a book of vignettes (though less fully worked out than Olive’s short stories) that moves back and forth in time. In the central time of the book, the early 80s, Lucy is in hospital and her mother, whom she has not seen in years, comes to visit. Her mother tells, and Lucy remembers, stories from her childhood. And we also see glimpses of Lucy’s future, because like Eileen it’s a retrospective first-person narration. I love Strout’s quiet voice and her humane, unsentimental perspective on ordinary relationships and human failings. She’s tender to her characters (and in this way, very different from McGuire). I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Kimberley Farr, but I want to go back and read it so I can appreciate it better.
I contrasted this a lot with Eileen because I listened right after finishing that book. Both Lucy and Eileen are women who have escaped difficult, even traumatic childhoods where they didn’t feel loved. Lucy has done so in a far more conventionally admirable way: she stayed after school to study because it was warm there, and thus won a scholarship and escaped via college and marriage. She’s a successful writer living in New York, and clearly prosperous (she mentions, for instance, having “a doctor who keeps me from looking like my mother”). But this life is something we only see in glimpses and allusions; it is surprising in its absence. Strout is more interested in how Lucy can never really escape her past–none of the characters in these books can–how she carries it with her, is marked by it, retells it. It is her story, her identity. I loved this about the book, the way trauma is not something to be transcended or triumphed over, but something she must live with, however resilient and successful she is.
If you read this far, and you’ve read Lucy Barton, what did you think was going on with the references to AIDS? It sometimes felt to me that they were meant to have a symbolic resonance to Lucy’s suffering, and I wasn’t comfortable with that since, after all, she survives.
Up next? I’ve got Hystopia by David Means from the library. But at the moment I’m taking a Booker break and reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo-winning novella Binti.