Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Disgrace (1999) – J.M. COETZEE

I should start this review by admitting I’ve never had much interest in reading Coetzee. The only thing I really know about him is that I never know whether to put his books in Australian Literature or not at work. But then this came up on a reading list at uni, so I didn’t really have a choice. Well, I had a choice, but I didn’t want to sound like an uninformed idiot when I went into the tute.

David Lurie is a twice divorced man of 52, who is rapidly realising his place in the world is being superseded by those younger than him. His job at the university no longer interests him – in fact, the only pleasure he derives from life is sleeping with prostitutes. But when he has an awkward sexual encounter with a student, he is forced to go bush, to go to his estranged daughter’s farm. Waiting there, though, is something that will affect their already fractious relationship.

It’s funny that this was on a reading list for postcolonial literature, because I never really got that vibe from reading the novel. Sure, it’s set in South Africa just after the fall of apartheid, and there are some race politics bubbling under the surface, but I don’t buy for a second that that’s the focus of the novel, or even the aim of Coetzee here. Here, he seems far more interested in gender politics, and how men and women interact with each other in the most extreme of situations.

Central to the plot, and indeed, the philosophy of the novel, are two sexual assaults – though they are world apart in tone and intent. What I’m about to say shouldn’t in any way make you think I’m ok with rape (because I’m really not), but Disgrace asks us to think about some difficult questions, so these are the things I’m trying to answer here.

The first one is uncomfortable, though vague enough for some people to perhaps not qualify it as a rape. Of course, David, our narrator, certainly doesn’t think so, and there is enough ambiguity in the way the girl acts, both during the incident and afterwards, to make us question what we might call the event that occurred. David is in no doubt of what happened – he was caught up in the moment, and it was a momentary lapse of judgement. He offers no kind of apology, simply an explanation of what was going through his mind when it happened. As you can probably guess, he doesn’t come off as a likeable kind of guy.

The second, though, is not so much uncomfortable so much as very confronting. There’s something to be said for typing your main character up in a room where he can hear his daughter be gang raped by three men. Not pretty, but then, I guess that’s the point. Stupid me was so shocked by the whole thing it took me a few more pages to realise what Coetzee was doing here – mirroring the sexual assault at the beginning, and forcing David to think about it from a different angle. Lucy’s reaction to her assault, and Melanie’s reaction to the first, are interesting in that, in some ways, they are the same. Neither of them want to talk about it – Lucy insists that it is not shame, but rather, that her father will never understand her, so she just doesn’t want to talk about it.

And this brings us to the central question of the novel: can a man ever understand what it’s like to be a woman, particularly one who’s been sexually assaulted? It’s not a question that I can answer, and Coetzee only provides a very tangential answer – I suspect he leans towards no, but his narrator is so messed up anyway, I can’t decided if he’s just presenting David as an idiot, or a wider symbol of manhood everywhere. Of course, David is not a symbol of manhood everywhere – he is a symbol of a particular kind of man at a particular stage in his life, where women have abandoned him willy nilly, and he’s done nothing to help the situation, by sleeping around like a man whore, and treating the women he sleeps with very little respect.

It is perhaps telling that, for an hour a few weeks ago, when we had a tute about this novel, I had very little to say. I don’t know how I feel about Disgrace. Certainly, it’s not at all what I thought it was. It is taught, sparse, and above all, unsettling. While David is understandable, he is not likeable. And no other character is, for me, understandable. These people are just doing things that I cannot comprehend. Perhaps, though, that was the point. David is out of touch with the world, and we are just seeing the world through the eyes of a tired, middle-aged man.

Tagged , , , ,

The Sea, The Sea (1978) – Iris MURDOCH

Another review so soon?! Clearly I have nothing better to do than avoid studying for exams – reading is definitely the best way to do this. I picked this up based solely on the fact that it was a pretty Vintage Classic, and it had won the Man Booker Prize. That, and it had been sitting on my shelf for an age. Is that a good way to choose? I don’t know…

Charles Arrowby, that famous playwright, has finally retired, and to celebrate, he’s moved into a dilapidated cottage on the coast of England. Even though he wants a quiet, peaceful time, writing his novel-memoir, a series of events are about to change that. When he meets his first love – his lost love – in the village nearby, his actions thereafter will have consequences not even he could dream of.

The word ‘odious’ does not, I think, get the credit it should these days. For if there is one word to describe Charles Arrowby, this is it. It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a narrator this much. Seriously, this man is an insufferable, pretentious bore, and misogynistic to boot. And yet, you just have to keep reading. Because, as a reader, it’s pretty clearly signposted that Charles’ actions are wrong, and his friends surrounding him keep telling him. You keep reading to see the spectacular fall, to see this man kicked to the ground for being such a douche.

‘Obsession’ is another good word. Charles has retired, so he’s not young. And yet, for the last forty years or so, he has been pining for a girl he went out with for a few years as a teenager, hoping that she would one day return to him, and sweep him away. This image of their relationship in his head drives him to kidnap her, and lock her away in his tower, in the hope that she will eventually come around to his way of thinking, even though she is going through her own stuff. Hartley – the woman in question – has been married to an ex-soldier, Ben, for a long time, and together, they have adopted a son, Titus. This family, while clearly dysfunctional, has somehow managed to survive, and yet Charles is so blinded by his obsession for a memory of something that happened forty years ago, that he cannot see Hartley as anything other than the battered wife, who needs rescuing by a knight-errant. And he thinks he is that knight. He is not.

This question of memory and history, together with obsession, formes the backbone for the novel, with Charles’ past coming to haunt him again and again. When his ‘old crowd’ from London come down to visit him – it seems, at first, a giant coincidence that they manage to arrive together – to see what he has done to himself, he cannot shake his memories of the past to see that people might have changed from what he once knew. He cannot see that Lizzie, for example, might still love him, despite having broken her heart years ago; that Peregrine might still blame him for his marriage’s disintegration’ or that James, his cousin, might actually be a much better person than he once thought. His relationships with women define Charles, and the three or four that are vital to this novel show him to be someone that does just use them for his own purposes, and then never thinks of them again. Unless, of course, they are Hartley.

Of course, everything has its time, and when the kidnapping incident is finally over, Charles finally begins to question his values and his lifestyle. Granted, the murders of a few people, and his own near death experience bring this somewhat to a head, but when he accepts that he must let Hartley go, things begin to turn in his head. Apparently Murdoch was heavily influenced at this time by Buddhist ideals, and this is very clear in the latter parts of the novel. And it’s not subtle, I should warn you – the Buddhist messages are rather like being hit over the head with a baseball bat. And for a while, you wonder where on Earth this has come from. And then, it begins to make sense – questions of reincarnation, of renewal, of moving forward, are very important in this conclusion, and I do think that, in the end Charles has learnt something from his experiences. But is this enough at this late stage? Personally, I don’t think so. But we’ll never know.

The Sea, The Sea, I must warn you, does have the most irritating narrator known to man. He’s not exactly unreliable, but after a while, you know exactly what is actually going on, and what he’s trying to tell you. This interplay alone makes for fascinating reading, but on the whole, this is an excellent novel that does deal with a lot, for the most part, quite successfully.

Tagged , , , ,

Amsterdam (1998) – Ian McEWAN

I read this weeks ago! This is, I think, the first time I’ve reviewed a book so long after the fact. I blame the fact that uni has stared again (only to end this week – yay!), and so I haven’t had time to scratch myself. So if this review seems a little off, I apologise in advance.

When Molly Lane dies, her friends come to pay their respects. In particular, two old friends meet again – Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday. Clive is a famous composer, having been commissioned to write the symphony for the next millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper struggling to survive. As these two lives begin to once again intertwine, a pact they make will have disastrous consequences.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ian McEwan – clearly, I’ve never reviewed him here. But I do like him a lot. There seems to the this stigma surrounding his work because he manages to straddle that line between populism and literature so very well – I would totally class his stuff as literature, but it has a somewhat broader appeal than most. There seems to be some ‘conventional wisdom’ that Amsterdam shouldn’t have won the Booker, but he got it because he was short-changed with Enduring Love. I don’t know about that, though. This is pretty good.

What I like most about McEwan’s work is the fact that it is just so very English. Well, a very specific type of English, to be fair – the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white man. But he just does it so well. These two men – Clive and Vernon – are so caught up in their own problems, they cannot see anything else. And when they realise that a woman they both dated has died, they also realise just how short their lives are. And so, the wheels begin to turn. Their legacy becomes of vital importance – who will remember these two men after they have died? What should they do to ensure their names live on?

The lengths they go to in order to ensure this become so great, you cannot quite believe that they are actually happening. Clive is willing to let a woman be attacked and raped just to ensure his muse isn’t interrupted, while Vernon is happy to destroy another man’s career – and probably family – to ensure he is remembered. And yet, this backfires so spectacularly on both of them. Both of them become so self-destructive, the ending seems almost like high farce.

Indeed, this is a very funny novel. McEwan keeps it light – and short – but I do think it works to the novel’s advantage. There is something very darkly funny about watching these two self-important, insignificant men run around trying desperately to make themselves relevant. And (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), the ending is absolutely perfect. There is no other way this book could have ended, and McEwan times it perfectly. There could have been a tendency to drag had he let their machinations play our terribly much longer, but the final scenes are so perfectly written and timed, I had to laugh. It’s pretty epic.

Amsterdam is an intelligent novel – and I think people tend to forget that sometimes. Partially because it’s surrounded by Enduring Love and Atonement in McEwan’s oeuvre, and the fact that it’s McEwan at all. There’s quite a lot at work here, and if you like your characters white, middle-aged, middle-class, with just a hint of insanity, then this just might be for you.

Tagged , , , , ,

Possession (1990) – A.S. BYATT

This book has been sitting on my shelves for about six months, and so many people kept telling me that I would like it, I finally caved. I have been on a winning streak when it comes to books lately, so I was hoping this would continue said streak. A book about the things that I study at university – how could I possibly not love it?

Roland Mitchell is a young academic working on an obscure Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, for his boss, Professor Blackadder. One day, he discovers documents about a possible romance between Ash and Christobel La Motte, a just as obscure feminist poetry of the same era. Attempting to work out what this might mean for Ash scholarship, Mitchell meets Maud Bailey, and the two of them try to piece together this intriguing Victorian mystery.

To be honest, when I read for pleasure, that’s exactly what I want to do. I don’t want to have to think about the things that I could be just as easily writing an essay on. That’s not to say that I don’t read heavy books – I like to think I’m a pretty intelligent reader. And it’s not that I didn’t ‘get’ this book – maybe it’s just because it’s the end of the semester, and I don’t want to think about literary criticism any more.

This book certainly ticks all the right boxes when it comes to that aspect of this novel. I found it to be a fairly biting criticism of the literary establishment of the time, with the debate between literary biographers and literary critics very much at the forefront. Byatt herself seems to be on the side of the critics – those who are biographers are looked down upon as not quite as good as those who simply study the text itself. Roland and Maud certainly spend a large amount of time reassuring each other that what they are doing will change the criticism of their respective poets, and that this is not biographical work they are doing. Byatt also pokes fun at the postmodernists, the feminists and the post-structuralists. She uses their jargon to purposely obfuscate (see what I did there?) the rants they go on to try and convince other people that their field of research is somehow better than another.

While this book certainly talks a lot about literary circles, it is also a love story. ‘A Romance’, as the subtitle proclaims. Unfortunately, though, I felt that this aspect of the novel falls somehow short. Roland and Maud’s blossoming romance is mirrored through that of Ash and La Motte, though the latter is far more convincing. Roland and Maud are far too busy to see what is happening right in front of them, and their work is perhaps the major factor in this. The ending, which I won’t spoil, however, does provide some relief in this front, when Roland makes a pretty important discovery surrounded by stray cats. Byatt’s message here is clear – literary criticism is not everything. Quite the opposite, in fact.

A.S. Byatt’s most well-known work is a long, dense read. This does not make it bad, I’m just warning you. There’s a lot about literary criticism – and a lot about late 80s movements in said field – that might go over the heads of some people who may not be so familiar with these things. I certainly didn’t understand half of it, and that’s what my university degree is about. Give it a go if you like, but be prepared for the long haul.

Tagged , ,

The God of Small Things (1997) – Arundhati ROY

I’m afraid that this is one of my first forays into the English literature of India. Terrible, I know, but the one or two others that I have read were not that great. And yes, I am well aware that basing an entire country’s literary output on one or two books is ridiculous and stupid, but there’s so much other stuff out there, I haven’t had a chance to rectify this. So, I figure, starting off with a modern classic – and yes, I think that this book deserves this title totally, simply because so many people know and love it – would perhaps help me ease into this massive output of work.

Rahel has been living in America for the last twenty years, when she comes back to Kerala – at state of India – to meet her estranged twin brother, whom she has not seen since they were 7. Returning to Ayemenem, her home town, however, brings back memories of one fateful day back in the 1960s, when her cousin from England had come to visit, when the Communist Revolution was simmering just below the surface of the community, and when her family was all still together.

If nothing else, this book is brilliantly written. Roy is a sublime writer, who uses the English language in ways that make me jealous. Her combination of English and her native language creates a unique sense of style that you could read all day.

Unfortunately, however, the novel sometimes becomes bogged down in this very style. In what is a very complex story – the jumps between the present and the past are often very subtle – the stylistic features can make the story itself hard to follow. A shame, because the story itself is also pretty good. Everyone loves a good family secret, and the one buried at the middle of this complex set of circumstances is pretty good. All the clues are there at the beginning, but it takes some time before the realisation of the whole thing begins to take place. Each member of the family is given sufficient time to explore their background, making the climax all that much more satisfying – an understanding of the actions of each character at the end make this novel well worth it. Though, to be fair, understanding these characters’ actions does not make the exceptionally depressing ending any easier to deal with. You are not going to feel good about humanity at the end of this novel – much like after reading an Ian McEwan novel, really.

This novel should be brilliant. And most of the parts are. But, I think that putting all of these parts together somehow takes away from the brilliance. Plot, characters and style are all excellently realised, but the novel somehow becomes less than the sum of its parts. It is not a particularly long book – at all – yet sometimes it feels as though it is really dragging, especially in the middle. Having said that, I do feel that this book very much warrants a re-read, perhaps to understand all the minute details and twists that pepper this very good (but not brilliant) novel.

Tagged , , , ,