Tag Archives: England

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

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Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

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The Bone Clocks (2014) – David MITCHELL

I should note, before I start, that I can in no way be a partial judge of David Mitchell’s work. If ever I had a favourite author, this guy would be it. So apologies if this sounds a bit fanboy-ish.

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, is another genre-bending, time-travelling, sprawling epic from the author of Cloud Atlas. When Holly Sykes runs away from home as a 16 year old, she cannot begin to imagine her life as an adult—a life that will see her travel the world, meet interesting people, and be drawn into a supernatural war thousands of years old.

Mitchell has few peers when it comes to the way in which he mixes and remixes genre and style to create an entirely new entity. So the best comparisons to draw are with his other work. I have seen several reviewers point to Cloud Atlas for comparison, but other than the fact that The Bone Clocks is composed of six interlocking novellas, there isn’t a lot going for that comparison. For while the beauty of Cloud Atlas is that those six novellas are, for the most part, unrelated, The Bone Clocks is a much tighter, much more controlled narrative. Each of the six stories here relates directly to Holly Sykes, whether through her family or through people she comes into contact with as she lives her (comparatively) normal life.

The other huge departure, too, is that The Bone Clocks is, if you’ll forgive the expression, balls-out fantasy. There’s none of the pussy-footing around the idea of reincarnation that we saw in Cloud Atlas, or even in Thousand Autumns—the concepts of Horologists, Atemporal, of people who can read minds, of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cather are right out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville novel. And yet it all seems to work, and never feels forced or too much like a literary trying desperately to be cool: it’s not just fancy decoration.

So though the fantasy is omnipresent in the pages of the novel, these complexities and fireworks would be nothing if there was no humanity, no soul (if you’ll forgive my taking of Mitchell’s own parlance) at the centre of it. Once you are drawn into the real lives of the five protagonists, it is easy to forget that any other-worldly creatures exist in this novel ever existed—Hugo, Ed and Crispin are all fascinating portraits of ordinary people learning to live in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Each finds themselves on the outer, each tries to get closer to Holly in order to ground themselves in a world they see slipping out of their grasp at an alarming rate. Perhaps, then, this is a novel of the men in Holly’s lives?

Mitchell has always been deeply concerned with the soul, with exploring the essence of what it means to be human. His work finds this soul, this humanity, in people from all over the world and from all over time. He doesn’t seem to see any particularly inherent difference between, say, a Noongar elder from the dawns of time and a Japanese prostitute working in 1600s Dejima. That kind of beautifully humanist naivety is what has always drawn me to his work, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

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The City & the City (2009) – China MIEVILLE

Two years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of Embassytown. The ability to take spec fiction tropes and use them to interrogate a whole raft of ideas—ranging from linguistic theory to postcolonial critiques—reminded me why I love spec fiction so much. So here I am again, back to worship at the altar of the big, bald socialist that is China Miéville.

Somewhere in the depths of Eastern Europe, in a small city called Besźel, a girl has been murdered. But when Inspector Tyodor Borlú begins investigating the case, even he cannot imagine where it will lead him— Besźel’s greatest nemesis, and closest neighbour, Ul Qoma.

Though there are glimpses of the brilliance seen in Embassytown—including a gift for imaginative linguistics every other fantasy author on the planet would kill to have—The City & the City does not reach the heights of Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece. His desire to stick slavishly to the procedural crime novel genre doesn’t give him the chance to move out of a fairly limiting structure and style, though there is no question he pulls of the style perfectly. And the twist ending is a little silly—I get that Miéville is a proper socialist, but the twist (“capitalism is the bad guy!”) undercuts the beautiful work he does in foreshadowing secret societies, rogue nationalists and perhaps even fantasy creatures.

Having said all that, the core concept at the heart of The City & the City is so brilliant, I can almost forgive the other stuff. This is a novel about the ways in which humans throw up arbitrary borders around our groups and the ways in which we exclude people from our lives simply because they are different. At first glance, the idea that two cities could occupy the same space seems inherently ridiculous. How could people possibly be taught to ignore the parts of their surroundings that are considered to be foreign? Remember, it is not just the space they share—they have a common history, a common archaeology, even a common architecture. How do you convince people that these identical things are really unique?

Yet that is exactly what we all do, each and every day we are alive. We teach ourselves to see the things we don’t want to as we walk through town—the charity workers trying to fleece our spare change, those supermarkets with signs written in a script we don’t understand, that homeless man begging for money.

Take, for example, my hometown. Though Sydney is widely held up as a successful model for integrating various ethnic and cultural groups into one city, so often, the real world application of these policies ends up more like these Miévillean (I’m totally making that a word, by the way) parallel cities. We all move through our lives taking in only the parts of the city that directly relate to us—we actively block out the ones that we believe have nothing to do with us. Taking this point to its logical conclusion is this novel’s greatest strength. By exaggerating the human characteristic, Mieville forces us to re-examine how we (literally) view the world around us.

Despite the genre and structure issues in The City & the City, an average Miéville book is still going to make you think about the world in which you live—who else would be able to come up with the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma? Once again he proves that the best kind of spec fiction focuses on ideas and themes, and not flashy aliens and dragons

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Harvest (2013) – Jim CRACE

I have never read Jim Crace before. Nay, I had never even heard of Jim Crace before he was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Crace has said that Harvest will be his last novel, though I’m not sure I ever believe an artist when they say they’re done.

The harvest is over. The townspeople are ready to celebrate the end of the season with their annual Gleaning, the party to end all parties. But on the morning of the celebrations, two things happen. The first is an act of arson. The second is the arrival of a trio of unwelcome strangers. As the town tries to decide if the two are connected, events rapidly escalate.

The sense of unease that defines this novel starts almost on the first page. A barn is set on fire, and though our narrator believes it to be the work of several local young hooligans, they deny any connection. Then, three strangers turn up—and the townspeople are quick to draw their own conclusions about the interlopers.

As an Australian in 2013,  it’s hard not to read this novel without thinking of the current political discourse, which has found itself stuck in a race to the bottom, where we do everything in our power to stop a few thousand people from entering our country because they are fleeing persecution. So when faced with a novel that is exactly about the relationship between the us and the them, it’s hard not to find points of resonance. Of particular interest is the—to my eyes—wild overreach in terms of punishment metered out to the two men who are caught after the barn fire is put out.

Stuck in the middle of this war is Walter. Though he has lived in the town for many years, he was not born there, and as such, is still viewed with some suspicion by many of the townspeople who were born and raised there. But at the same time, to the three interlopers, he is nothing but another faceless member of a harsh village. Perhaps this is why, at the beginning of the novel, he is hesitant to call out the three he believes to have actually caused the fire. And, as has been proven through history again and again, when a good person fails to speak up, a situation can rapidly get out of hand, and violence ensues.

There is a danger when an author decides to write an historical novel in olde-worlde English. Too often, it comes off either as tone deaf, or so cloyingly twee, you want to throw it against a wall. Fortunately, Crace does not put a step wrong in his evocation, not only of an historical mindset, but of an historical English, complete with words and phrases that are no longer common.

At the time of writing, Harvest is the favourite to win this year’s prize. I’ve still only read a handful of novels, and at the moment, it’s certainly in my top two or three. On the surface, this is a simple novel about a crime that goes horribly wrong, but dig a little deeper, and you find a novel trying to grapple with timeless themes, and perhaps advocating for a little more kindness in our lives.

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The Islands (1999) – Carlos GAMERRO

I am young enough to have a negligible understanding of the Falklands War. If you were to ask me to point to them on a map, I would struggle. If you asked me why two countries on opposite sides of the world were fighting of what appear to be some rocks in the ocean, I probably couldn’t give you an answer. I couldn’t tell you if England or Argentina had a more legitimate claim to them. Please bear this in mind as I review a huge Argentinian novel about the Falklands War.

It’s been ten years since the end of Falklands War. Felipe Félix was there, but has now become a slacker computer hacker, spending much of his time high. One day, he is summoned to the office of a very rich, very powerful and very secretive. The man has a job for him—find the person his son killed. As Felipe digs down, he finds that, for a lot of people, the war hasn’t ended, and that he is slowly being drawn back in.

There is no way to adequately describe what Gamerro is trying to do in The Islands in a short blog post. I will leave the big questions up to the academics who are no doubt salivating over the whole thing. What I do want to talk about, though, is the structure, and the way in which it creates a kind of fractured narrative about war, about national identity, and about the future.

Marketing books is hard. Marketing indie translations is even harder. So when And Other Stories call The Islands “a detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir,” it sounds like they are trying to cover all their bases, to get as many people reading the novel as possible. As it turns out, they are actually quite close to the truth. The first section could be ripped right out of any cyperpunk novel of the late 80s/early 90s, with a computer hacker getting a mysterious summons to a skyscraper made exclusively out of one-way mirrors. It’s inventive, bizarre, philosophical, and confrontingly violent.

It is something of a surprise, then, when Chapter Two takes a huge turn, and becomes a detective novel, mixed with surreal scenes of a shady Argentinian public service. Genre hopping becomes commonplace throughout the novel, and Gamerro takes us from crime novel to war memoir, road trip to cyperpunk in almost self-contained chapters that all build up a picture of a war that, for many people, never really ended.

Clearly threaded throughout this, though, is the way in which Argentina, and Argentinians, responded to losing the war. It is what drives our protagonist—both physically and emotionally—to seek out the answers he has been asked to find. Several sections are written as flashbacks to the war itself, in which Felipe Félix himself was a conscript. These glimpses into the war are not pretty—much of it seems pointless, with the officers in particular more concerned with their own egos than questioning their own actions.

The Islands is too long for its own good—I got bored and stopped every few sections. It tends to ramble, often repeating thematic beats that have already been explored, and sometimes loses narrative focus in favour of drug trips and conversations on philosophy. I’m terrified by the afterword, in which Gamerro suggests this English edition has been cut down significantly from the original Spanish.

Taken on their own, though, each section in The Islands is a little masterpiece, exploring everything from love, lust, father/son relationships, computer science and wartime nationalism—but always through the lens of the Falklands War. One cannot help but wonder if this makes it the archetypal contemporary Argentinian novel.

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Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009) – Kristina CARLSON

My subscription to the 2013 season of Peirene Press novellas/short novels is chugging along nicely—the second of the collection turned up on my doorstep several weeks ago. I very much enjoyed the first Peirene book I read, and though there’s really nothing connecting this novel—a contemporary Finnish novel from Kristina Carson—with the last—an 80s novel from Germany—Peirene has made a name for itself by being a brand of a certain kind of novel. Does this novel, then, reach the heights of The Mussel Feast?

The blurb of Mr Darwin’s Gardener proudly proclaims that this is a postmodern Victorian novel. That doesn’t make a lot of sense; the schools of Victorianism and postmodernism are, I would argue, almost diametrically opposed—not just in the obvious, superficial stylistic features, but in their very world view. Victorian novels are famed for their moral and moralistic stances on issues of the times; postmodern novels revel in the presentation of multiple points of view, ensuring they do not privilege any particular stance.

Having said all this, there is a way to arrive at a kind of syncretic point between the two: John Fowles managed to take postmodern sensibilities—the idea of an unreliable narrative structure—and put them into an ostensibly Victorian context and framework in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The most obviously postmodern technique Carlson uses in her novel is her use of shifting perspectives. Opening paragraphs of sections begin in the third person, but every paragraph after that is told in first person, our narrator being the previously mentioned character. It fractures the narrative, creating a kaleidoscope of points of view, each one slightly different. We are allowed into the minds of so many people in this small village, each one similar, but just different enough to be recognised.

What does shine through all of this stylistic pyrotechnics is the idea that a closed-minded, small-world-thinking culture is potentially harmful to those who don’t share the same view. In many ways, it is a critique of the small-mindedness of Victorian sensibilities, particularly when it comes to things like science, love and illness.

These Victorian values are particularly apparent in the small town’s mob reaction to two events. The first is Thomas’ moving to the village. Having no wife, forced to bring up his two young children by himself, there are constant whisperings about his own ability to do so. The second is a singularly poignant event in which, the small-town mob having discovered an extramarital affair, take it upon themselves to dole out gang justice on the man who undertook said affair.

As the title would suggest, the other theme running through the novel is the collision of religion and science. Thomas was, indeed, the titular gardener, and though his wife has died, he still clings to the ideals science promotes, placing him in direct opposition to many of the people in the village. Though we don’t hear from Thomas often in this cacophony of narrators, his concerns for his children—as well as his consideration of the inherent tension between these two modes of thinking—mark him out as perhaps the most intelligent of those we meet.

Carlson’s novel never quite hits the heights of Fowles’ masterpiece. Ironically, perhaps, it never feels quite focused enough on any one character to leave any kind of lasting impression. While Peirene’s previous offering, The Mussel Feast, used its short length to its advantage, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, while being an impressive feat of style, perhaps overreaches itself in its attempt to satirise so many individuals in a short space.

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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.

The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.

I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.

Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.

It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)

Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.

The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.

One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles.  The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.

Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.

This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.

I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.

On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.

Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.

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NW (2012) – Zadie SMITH

It’s been a long time between novels for Zadie Smith – her last, On Beauty, was published in 2005. In her defence, she has been busy having a real life, getting married and having a baby. NW is a return to Smith’s own childhood neighbourhood – the north-west of London (hence the title). It is her shortest work yet, though is perhaps her most experimental work, particularly in terms of formal structure if not in thematic concern.

Leah has been friends with Keisha ever since Keisha saved Leah from drowning at the age of four. As with all childhood friendships, the two have grown apart as they grow up, go to university, get jobs and find partners. But Leah still lives on the council estate they grew up on, while Keisha moved away, changed her name to Natalie, and has become a successful lawyer. When Leah has an uncomfortable encounter with a girl on the estate, the two women find themselves once again drawn into each other’s lives.

I’ve never been to London, let alone north-west London, so I can claim no expertise on whether or not Smith has accurately evoked the neighbourhoods of Willesden. Besides, specific urban geography does not worry me. What does interest me is the concept of these London council estates, in which a true melting pot of disparate groups find themselves shoulder to shoulder, denied access to the mainstream. It becomes something of a petri dish, then, particularly for the authors who portray them, allowing them almost unlimited scope in their quest to explore the three backbones of lit crit – race, class and gender.

The first section, Leah’s story, focuses on gender. Interestingly, just as the recent debate in the US and around the world in regards to women’s rights has been closely linked to questions of control over the reproductive cycle, so too does Smith equate a kind of feminism with contraception. Though Michel is desperate to start a family, Leah is unsure and so, in secret, continues to take the pill in order to prevent her getting pregnant. It is interesting to chart the difference between the genders here – though Leah does not want She finds herself unable to communicate to Michel why it is exactly that she does not want a child. As the section moves to the end, we discover that, in fact, Leah is not even attracted to men.

Threaded through Leah’s life are questions of race. She works as a social worker, having been to university and studied. But she works with women who didn’t have that chance, and as the only white woman in the office, she finds herself the target of what are not doubt intended to be jokey cracks about her perfect life. There is a sense, though, that these are not just jokes – these black women are framing their very real jealousies with humour to make them seem less petty, less cruel. Nevertheless, there is a cruel streak in their taunting, and for Leah, who already seems to be highly strung, her workplace becomes a place of stress.

Moving to the second section, Smith turns her gaze on to questions of race. Felix is a recovering addict, and wants to buy a car. And so we follow him in this seemingly simple endeavour – he has found someone willing to sell him the model and make he wants, so he can fix it up. He meets this posh white university student, and a comedy of errors ensues. But what’s the term when a comedy of errors simply becomes errors? Felix decides to see his ex-girlfriend (and the father of his children), in the hope that she, too, has cleaned up her act. Sadly – for him and for us – she has not. Smith paints this junkie as a figure of pity, but also as one not deserving of our respect. We like Felix – I think he is probably the most likeable of the four main characters – and so we don’t like her. Her inability to see what she is doing to herself, and to the people around her, upsets Felix, who has managed to find a way out of the quagmire that is
a life of drug-taking.

We are taken then to Natalie, whose story is told in fragments – tiny chapters, most no longer than a few paragraphs. This is the kind of writing I can get behind, and certainly the one to which I reacted most positively. Just as I loved it in Chinaman, this fragmentary style allows witty, as well as emotional, asides to act as a counterpoint to the main melody of the narrative that is Natalie escaping the shackles of her class upbringing. It is this drift – away from the council estate of predominantly non-white poor people, towards the moneyed white upper-classes – that provides the most friction between the two women. Though she has moved off the estate, and is now comfortably middle-class, Natalie still wants to be seen as a, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a strong independent black woman. In a world of milk-white skin, she provides local colour, and is often used for political gains by people around her. The question of her taking silk, for example, rapidly becomes a question of whether the bar is ready for a non-white, non-male silk – it becomes less about her abilities as a lawyer, and more about her race, gender, and to a certain extent, class. She has the perfect middle-class family, a husband, a son and daughter, but there does seem to be something missing. One cannot help but wonder if there’s anything to be made of the fact that both of the women here view motherhood with suspicion. Leah is so desperate to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, and for a long time, Natalie cannot deal with her children, relinquishing control to a parade of nannies.

I mentioned a little while ago that I appreciated the use of technology in Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, because I don’t think authors explore it the kind of seriousness it deserves. But it comes up again here, as Natalie, in an attempt to escape the inanity of her life, finds solace on the internet. It is perhaps the only part of the novel that veers away from the hyper-realist tone set up by Smith. Natalie doesn’t only find solace on the internet; she finds solace in late-night hook-ups with strangers from the internet, a past-time that comes to a head when she offers herself as the token woman in a threesome with two much, much younger men. It it, to say the least, a strange scene, but it does set up the final sequence.

The blurb of NW, as well as many of the reviews, make reference to the novel following four characters. I have only mentioned three so far. The last, Nathan Bogle, remains little more than a ghostly figure for most of the novel – much referenced and discussed, but little seen outside of a few mentions of him smoking pot and getting high. His is the last section, and for me to say much about it would be to ruin much of the ostensible plot of the novel, so I’ll try to keep it brief. He and Natalie find each other, and in a gorgeous evocation of north-west London, find themselves wandering around their old haunts. This is their land, and they know it well. No one can take that away from them.

It would have been easy for Zadie Smith to write another thick, hysterical realist novel and for us to all be happy with it. But experimentation with form and theme is the sign of a great writer. Smith’s dip into modernism is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. It allows her to explore her pet themes – the collision of race, class and gender in a very specific part of contemporary London. Hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful new phase of her career.

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