Tag Archives: memory

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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The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

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The Gathering (2007) – Anne ENRIGHT

The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.

The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.

The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.

It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.

There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.

In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.

Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.

The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.

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The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan ENG

I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.

The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.

For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?

Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.

Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])

So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.

Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.

I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.

 

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The Stranger’s Child (2011) – Alan HOLLINGHURST

Alan Hollinghurst is not someone I would describe as a fast writer. His last novel, The Line of Beauty, came out in 2004, and beat Cloud Atlas – one of my most favouritest novels – in winning the Man Booker Prize that year. Unsurprisingly, this brick of a book was a favourite to win the Booker this year, and with good reason. I have no idea why it didn’t make the shortlist. While The Line of Beauty life me somewhat cold, this novel is truly excellent.

George Sawle has brought his friend from Cambridge, Cecil Valance, to the family house for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem that, taken completely out of context, becomes one of the most loved British poems of the twentieth century. Following the ripples this poem causes throughout this century, we discover a world of lost opportunities, of lost love, and of

The first section is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Hollinghurst’s slightly formal, very controlled, deeply English way of writing is perfectly suited to the Edwardian era, and building this first section around a summer garden party, complete with upper-class English people, gin and tonic, and sneaky make-out sessions in the grounds, is just perfect. Perhaps I’m just projecting my ideal image of “England”, but there is something here that really draws you in. George and Cecil’s attempts to, well, have some alone time while putting on a respectable front are funny, and Daphne’s attempts to get Cecil to take an interest in her – coupled with her complete obliviousness to the fact that, actually, she probably isn’t his type – are also nicely played. Indeed, the fact that no one seems to notice that George and Cecil are making out at every available moment is well done, particularly reading it from our perspective.

The friendship – well, relationship – between George and Cecil is pitch perfect, too. Cecil, so cocksure (no pun intended) is having far more fun that George, who clearly worships the ground Cecil walks on, to the extent that he doesn’t really see that Cecil is sometimes a bit of a pompous, self-important arse. George’s sister Daphne, too, is crushing on Cecil, though the fact that she is several years younger than him means he treats this as little more than a simple schoolgirl infatuation. Indeed, the poem for which he will be come famous, Two Acres, is intended as a love poem for George. The central, cruel irony of this novel, though, is that no one but George can ever know this.

Hollinghurst is uncompromising in his desire to focus on the small character pieces. Despite starting in the 1920s, and finishing in 2008, the important parts of the centre take place off screen, as it were. Instead, we deal with the ramifications of these important events with the main characters, away from the action, both physically and temporally. And as time goes by, new characters are introduced, and old characters are left behind. By the end, our only constant companion is Daphne Sawle, though even she becomes more tangential as the years go by. More than Daphne, this novel revolves around Cecil – even though he only physically appears in the first section. Somewhat like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the latter parts of the novel deal with literary criticism, and historiography, and whether those of us left behind can ever truly work out what was going on in the minds of authors from long ago.

For those who are expecting the sensuality and physicality of Hollinghurst’s earlier works, you may be somewhat disappointed. There are no full-on scenes of man on man action – this time, he prefers to leave much of it unsaid. Indirectly, though, this is also a novel about the gay history of England. From the secret, furtive relationship between George and Cecil, to a relationship in the 1960s, cut in half by the revocation of the law criminalising homosexuality, to the final scene of a funeral for the husband of a gay man, Hollinghurst manages to remind us just how far the gay rights movement has brought us in just under one hundred years.

There’s so much going on in this novel, and I’ve barely touched on most of it here. Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed it. From the garden parties, to the boarding schools, Hollinghurst evokes an almost clichéd England. By populating it with characters who mean something, and feel something, though, he manages to make this one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

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The General of the Dead Army (1963) – Ismail KADARE

And so my slight obsession with Albanian literature continues. Well, I say Albanian – I really mean Ismail Kadare. I don’t know what it is about him that I keep coming back to, but his writing combined with the really pretty Vintage Classics covers of some of his novels just makes me go back for more.

An Italian general has been sent on a mission. He must go to Albania and collect the bones of all the fallen soldiers from the Second World War. Tagging along with him is a military priest and a local expert. Over the two years that it takes them to complete this mammoth task, all sorts of memories of the past begin to surface that many people have tried to forget for the last twenty years. Memories of Italian mistreatment of the Albanian population, and diaries of the deceased Italian soldiers provide a fascinating insight into what life is like in an occupied country – from both sides.

I love the central concept that this novel weaves itself around. I love the idea of someone going back to collect the bones of the dead (hence the title of the novel) and being forced to relive events that he is desperately trying to forget. I love that he is going to a country that was occupied by his own army not twenty years ago. I think this is a really clever way of writing a war novel, and I think what Kadare does best is to not blame either side for what went on. Or, at least, I didn’t read any blame. What makes this novel even better is that it is told from the Italian point of view.

Kadare could have quite easily have taken the Albanian side, and given us an Italian general who is narky and insensitive, but instead, he has given us a character who feels old, tired, frustrated with what he is doing and the way he is going about it. His attempts to befriend the Albanians, who are still (quite rightly) bitter about the war, are lovely to see from his side, and the stonewalling he gets from the other side is frustratingly predictable. But in a good way – this smaller token of reconciliation is no doubt meant to represent relations between the two countries, and to see Albania being portrayed as the people unwilling to move on is more interesting than the predictable inevitability of making Italy the bad guys. Albania itself is not characterised as a particularly nice place. Most of the descriptions of the landscape paint it as bleak and uninviting – especially since the novel focuses much of its time on the general doing his job in the winter, in mountains and backwaters that inspire dreariness and grayness.

For me, the best parts of the novel were the flashbacks to the war itself – the highlight of this being a diary of a deserter who lives out his life on an Albanian farm. There’s something so beautiful and elegiac about the whole thing, you just want to read it forever. And that, I think, is where the novel’s main weakness is. I would have much rather seen Kadare focus more on the flashbacks and diaries than the present day, mainly because I think his writing is much better in these sections. He brings some kind of balance and thought into what he is writing here, and it makes for some really unique war reading. Not that he condones what is going on – these diaries are far more personal than the political machinations of what was going on around them. Much like the general in the present day, Kadare chooses to focus on the personal rather than the national. There are some other really nice touches – the story of the whorehouse in the small Albanian village is perfectly pitched, as is the old woman at the wedding at the end. The German general, another man here to collect the bones of his dead, is another nice character, though it would have been nice to see him a bit more in the novel – he becomes vitally important at the end, though he is not set up as being so in the main body.

There is a reason Ismail Kadare was able to break out of the shudder-inducing genre of “world literature” and become a respected author in his own right, and this novel encapsulates it. His ability to paint characters who are placed in situations that are universal, and does not have to rely on making Albania, or its history, the backbone of every novel he writes, so that people read it to feel intelligent and well-read. Hopefully, people read this book because it is a very good novel, not just because “that guy’s from Albania”.

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