Posts Tagged ‘Booker Prize’

Participants: Dame Stella Rimington, thriller author and Chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in 2011; Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian; Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation; and Chip Rolley, SWF artistic director.

As chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington caused a bit of a brouhaha when she suggested that the shortlisted books – and thus the eventual winner – should be ‘readable’.  Many saw this as an assault on the prize’s literary status, a ‘dumbing down’ as it were.  Chip Rolley kicked off this session by asking her what she meant.  She responded by saying that perhaps she’d used the wrong word, that maybe ‘accessible’ would have been a better choice.  She didn’t mean to suggest that it need be populist or simple.  Rather, good books should be true to itself, relevant, something that is bought and read rather than bought and put on a shelf, like Ulysses.  There are no guidelines given the Booker judges apart from that the winner should be the ‘best book published in the year’.  In 2011 there were 138 books submitted to the judges, which they have to read in only a few months, owing to the need to select the longlist.  For any reader this is a herculean task.  Publishers are only allowed two books each to submit, although there are other avenues (previous winners and those requested by the judges among them).  So there is a filtering of books at the publisher level, which is why other genres – a term which is an unhelpful wall in the view of James – do not get submitted.

But is accessible a better word?  Slightly, said Romei, though Rolley said Jeanette Winterson, also a SWF attendee this year, who was scathing in her views of Rimington’s ‘readability’ was of the view: ‘what is wrong with difficult?’  She wanted a writer’s language to expand her mind.

James said that all forms of writing when done well have more in common than might be suspected.  He quoted Winston Chruchill’s wonderful speeches (and gave hilarious management-speak versions alongside) as a means of underlying his point.  Great writing can be simple and direct and inclusive.

Romei, a fan of Ulysses and Moby Dick, spoke about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (see my review) and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies (review forthcoming), which stand out as both challenging reads – owing to cast of characters – as well as being cracking reads.  They ‘zip along’ – a reference to one of Rimington’s fellow judge’s comments.

James loves being challenged, but not being bored, to which Rimington said she bought Ulysses and got through the first few pages and found it was not giving her anything back, so on the shelf it went.  Romei said that listening to Ulysses was the ticket, something he likened it to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, another difficult read with many allusions, but which satisfied him because he was the sort of person who liked looking those references up.  (He also highlighted the i-phone/i-pad app of The Wasteland, which will please Sue of Whispering Gums who has highlighted her pleasure with the same app on her blog.)  Part of reading is the learning, said Romei.

Rimington said that a book should be enjoyable.  When asked by an audience member what makes a good story, she said ‘change’ was key.  She talked about Julian Barnes’ Boooker winner, The Sense of an Ending, (my review coming very soon), in which we start with a seemingly boring old man but realise he’s incredibly complex as we move through the story.  James said that there needs to be shape and good characters, as well as what Elizabthe Jolly described as ‘some central mischief’ that animates the story.  He wondered whether literary prizes were somewhat past their best, to which Romei quickly countered that he was against taking ‘stuff’ away from writers, that if anything there should be more of it.

For all of Rimington’s controversial comments, the one thing that was agreed was that the Booker was awarded to a very ‘literary’ novel, something which got lost in the stoush over semantics.  What was interesting to her, was the giant unseen apparatus that survives on generating interest in the award, something that all of us Booker observers love to see.  I mean, what would a Booker shortlist be without some sort of controversy?

While a thoughtful debate, it wasn’t quite as lively as it might have been.  Perhaps we needed Jeanette Winterson on stage too.  Now that would have been interesting!

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To my mind, all novels enter into a larger conversation with all the novels that have come before them.  In some instances this is thematic; in others it’s a more direct dialogue.  Lloyd Jones’ superbly crafted Mister Pip is one of the latter types, creating a close relationship with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (see my review here).  Early on in Mister Pip, our young narrator, Matilda, relates how she feels she was entering into the story of Great Expectations as it is read to her class by the memorable Mr Watts.  I understand this beguiling and beautiful pull completely, for I was experiencing the same thing; I was entering into the world of Mister Pip.

And what a world it is.  Set against the backdrop of a civil war on Bougainville, Matilda tells the story of her village during the war, and how Mr Watts, the last remaining white man in the village after the blockade, steps in to teach her and the other kids in their school.  He is not a teacher, and tells them that he has no wisdom, but he exudes such a presence that the children respond to him.  The only book he has at his disposal is Great Expectations, which he describes as “the greatest novel by the greatest writer of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens.”  He reads it to the class and Matilda and the others are hooked.  She feels as though Pip is a real person, a friend.

Bougainville is a tropical paradise.  It is “one of the most fertile places on earth.  Drop a seed in the soil and three months later it is a plant with shiny green leaves.  Another three months and you are picking its fruit.”

But war transforms this paradise into something of a hell.  Trouble descends when the government army come into the town looking for rebels, destroying the villagers’ possessions and homes.  Mr Watts is introduced to them as Mr Dickens, and soon the soldiers are trying to find Mister Pip too.

In the aftermath of their visit, Mr Watts tells the children:

… these loses, severe though they may seem, remind us of what no person can take, and that is our minds and our imaginations.

Amen to that.

Acts of violence are never far away, though, and Pip is something of a life-raft to which Matilda clings; (she clings to Mr Jaggers in an unexpected way later in the book too!).

Much to his credit, Mr Watts invites all the children’s parents and family into the class to tell the kids whatever it is they know about life.  Here we see Matilda’s God-fearing mother, Dolores, become something of a nemesis to the non-religious Mr Watts.  Their tender rivalry is depicted so, so well.  Matilda reflects that her mother:

thought she had Mr Watts summed up.  She could not see what us kids have come to see: a kind man.  She only saw a white man.  And white men had stolen her husband and my father.  White men were to blame for the [copper] mine, and the blockade.  A white man had given us the name of our island.  White men had given me my name.  By now it was also clear that the white world had forgotten us.

But though Dolores thinks she has the wood on Mr Watts, it is really he who has the measure of her.

Jones construct some sublime moments, including the scene in which Matilda, remembering a fragment of the destroyed Great Expectations rans breathless into Mr Watts’ house in the moment he closes the eyes of his dead wife.  The dilemmas that Matilda, her mother, and Mr Watts all face as things race toward the climax are also deftly managed, and the climax when it comes is gripping stuff.

There are wonderful echoes of Great Expectations throughout, in the characters, plot, and even the way the book starts, with Matilda introducing us to Mr Watts by his other name, the name everyone knew him as: Pop Eye – just as Pip introduces himself by his nickname.

Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 (losing to Anne Enright’s The Gathering) and won the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Writers’ prize for best book in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific ‘zone’ in the same year.

There is a movie version in the works, with none other than Hugh Laurie (better known as Dr Gregory House) playing the part of Mr Watts.  It is due out sometime this year.

Mister Pip speaks to us about how the power of story can triumph in the most appalling of situations.  In so doing it becomes a triumph itself, a haunting book that will stay with me long after reading.  I wager it will have the same effect on you.

Also worth a look is the First Tuesday Book Club’s panel discussion of Great Expectations with Lloyd Jones and the marvellous Miriam Margolyes, which you can see here.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones



220 pages

ISBN: 9781021520242

Source: the local municipal library

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I am late arriving to Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, Booker-winning Wolf Hall, which tells the rise (and rise) of Thomas Cromwell, from the lowly son of a blacksmith to the highest of courtiers to the Tudor King, Henry VIII, drawn against the backdrop of the annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Queen Katherine and the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the schism in the church it creates.  I don’t intend to spend time outlining the story; there’s enough of that elsewhere.  What I want to muse on is Mantel’s characterisation of Cromwell, the master power-broker.

In most novels we find a protagonist who wants something and we follow them as they set about to get it.  Their desire is clear to us, and though in the best of stories they might get what they ‘need’ rather than what they ‘want’, their want is outlined from the off.  (We get to see their need as the story develops.)  What Mantel does in the close-third-person, present-tense re-creation of Cromwell is very interesting.  For much of the novel, his desire is hidden, unstated, slippery.  After travelling abroad, learning languages, banking, the art of relationships, he finds himself returning toLondon to take up the business of a lawyer.  Here he serves the infamous Cardinal Wolsey very well (as well as maintaining his own business affairs), and we see his loyalty and cunning, but, there is no overt desire stated.  It is only much later, after Wolsey’s death, when Cromwell is rising up the ranks in Henry’s court (much to the dismay of all the high-born councillors), that he begins to ask for some things.  But even then it is more a case of Henry thrusting positions and honours upon him without him asking for them.

This lack of inner awareness is wonderful characterisation.  Cromwell’s as slippery as aThameseel.  Henry’s old friends wonder who he is and how he got to where he is, [p394]:

Brandon grunts.  ‘We all are [guided by Cromwell].  We must be.  You do everything, Cromwell.  You are everything now.  We say, how did it happen?  We ask ourselves … but by the steaming blood of Christ we have no bloody answer.’ 

In a way, Cromwell can’t answer them, for he is spellbound by himself as well.  Late in the book he thinks, [p577]:

I shall not indulge More, …or his family, in any illusion that they understand me.  How could that be, when my workings are hidden from myself? 

Alice More, wife of Thomas, is under no illusion as to his abilities, telling him, [p605]:

‘My husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’

The construct of a man who acts on instinct rather than pre-planning is reinforced time and time again.  What could be a better way of constructing Cromwell’s rise than to do it in this way?  It’s brilliant.

The depiction of the courtiers’ cut and thrust is sublime.  The dialogue is delicious, the humour ripe.  There’s one instance, after Cromwell discusses a carpet which he is wondering whether should be put on the wall or the floor.  Says Stephen Gardiner to Cromwell:

‘We all know that money sticks to your hands.’ 

Like the aphids to More’s roses.  ‘No,’ [Cromwell] sighs.  ‘It passes through them, alas.  You know, Stephen, how I love luxury.  Show me a carpet, and I’ll walk on it.’ 

Then there’s the moment when Cromwell comes to court to see Henry and is refused entry thus, [p422]:

‘The king cannot see you this monring.  He and Lady Anne are composing some music for the harp.’

Rafe catches his eye and they walk away.  ‘Let us hope in time they have a little song to show for it.’  

Cromwell is a master at reading people’s faces and body language.  The way he knows that Henry has (finally) bedded Anne is a joy.  (I’ll leave it for you to discover how.)

Research is woven into the prose effortlessly.  Take for instance this passage, where it builds upon the picture of Cromwell’s commercial prowess as he ingratiates himself to a Welsh merchant so he could marry his daughter: [p41]:

“Latterly, Wykys had grown tired, let the business slide.  He was still sending broadcloth to the north German market, when – in his opinion, with wool so long in the fleece these days, and good broadcloth so hard to weave – he ought to be getting into kerseys, lighter cloth like that, exporting through Antwerp to Italy.” 

There are some beautifully lyrical sections, including many of the early chapter ends.  Take, for instance, this end to the first chapter: [p16]:

“He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a grey wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.” 

It seems remiss to just look at Cromwell’s characterisation, for all the characters are so deftly drawn.  Wolesy is a marvellous creation, so too Anne and Mary Boleyn.

Cromwell works very hard, and as the new positions of trust are added onto all the old ones, he increasingly wants for a day off.  Anne Boleyn’s coronation sees him organise everything, even the weather.  And then there’s the business of Thomas More and all the recalcitrant papists running aboutEngland.  The want of a day off ties in nicely with the book’s end.

I might have come late to Mantel’s marvellous Tudor world, but I won’t be as tardy when Bring up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, is released next month.

Hilary Mantel is ‘appearing’ (via video-link) at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, talking about Bring up the Bodies.  See here for details.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Fouth Estate

650 pages

ISBN: 9780007230204

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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The Booker-winning Possession is such great fun.  It is a multi-layered, literary detective romance, tracing the efforts of a pair of literary scholars, the hitherto middling Roland Michell and the prickly Maud Bailey, as they discover in the mid-1980s the love letters of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, as well as other journals and correspondence previously unknown or unstudied that unearth a great love story that re-writes the books on the two poets’ respective oeuvres.  Along the way, Michell and Bailey develop a relationship of their own, which has symmetries with the poets’ (Maud is a distant relation of LaMotte, and Michell discovers that he wants to be a poet rather than a scholar), but which is, nonetheless, a modern romance when compared to that of the Victorians’.  In their wake, Roland and Maud drag along a bevy of competing scholars, who all have reputations to protect or extend, including the obsessive US-based Ash fanatic, Mortimer Cropper, and his staid English counterpart, Professor Blackadder – for whom Roland works.  And there is so much fun along the way, with Byatt sending up all manner of scholarly ‘types’.  The whole novel is one great pastiche of academia.

The quest all kicks off when Roland finds the unfished drafts of a letter he wrote to Christabel after first meeting her, where they discussed her ‘fairy project’.  The drafts show Roland a side of Ash never before seen: impulsive, rash, taken over by emotion, and his interest is piqued.  They are found inside one of Ash’s old books, now in the London Library.

But the letters aren’t addressed to anyone and it is only after a little digging that he discovers to whom they were intended for.  So begins the chase to discover what form of relationship these two poets had.  He contacts Maud and they are away.  They travel to the house where LaMotte died, a grand old country estate near Lincoln, where Sir George and his poorly wife still live.  After Roland saves the old lady’s life, the two are invited to dinner and therein discover, thanks to Maud, the correspondence, hidden with the dolls.

Now the chase begins in earnest, to see what is in the letters, to see how much they are worth – both financially and culturally – and to get there ahead of the other scholars who quickly pick up the scent.

When he finds the unfinished draft letters, Roland feels that he has some form or ‘possession’ of them and sneaks them out of the library and keeps their discovery hidden from Blackadder.  This is the first of several uses of the word ‘possession’ throughout the book, though it is never overdone.  Both Roland and Maud feel possessive toward their discovery.  Sir George feels his own ownership of the letters given they were discovered in his house.  Cropper has an obsessive form of possession toward anything and everything of Ash’s, including buying many artefacts that Ash used in his lifetime; when we first meet him he ‘writes’ in his mind an autobiography of his childhood which is in essence a litany of things his family owed.  The whole theme is who owns what when it comes to the private lives of famous literary figures.

But the question of possession is also a much more personal one.  Roland questions the possessiveness in his own relationship with Val, while Christabel also refers to possession in one of her letters to Ash, stating [p160-1]: “a voracious Worm with many legs which we have been wholly unable to identify and which is Possessed of a Restless Demon…”, and we of course think she is referring to her also unidentified self as much as the poor worm.  Her work begins to suffer – she is smothered by Ash – and so too her friendship with Blanche Glover, her housemate.

When Ash describes the arrival of Spring to her in one of his letters, we see other dark omens, [p181-2]:

There were hosts of black ravens, very busy and important, striding about and stabbing at the roots of things with their blue-black triangular beaks.  And larks rising, and spiders throwing out their gleaming geometrical Traps and staggering butterflies and unevenly speeding blue darts of the dragonflies.  And a kestrel riding the air-currents with superlative ease with its gaze concentrated on the bright earth.

When was there so much death in a passage about the life of Spring?  And if she is the worm, then what chance does she have with all those carnivores ready to Trap and devour her?

Even Ash recognises the power he has over her, thinking on their trip to Yorkshire, [p279]:

He would teach her that she was not his possession, he would show her she was free, he would see her flash her wings.

He asks her whether she regrets going with him on the trip, whether she regrets it all, and she replies, [p284]:

No.  This is where I have always been coming to.  Since my time began.  And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything ran, before, and from which everything will run.  But now, my love we are here, we are now, and those other times are running elsewhere.

What a perfect summation of her feelings.

One of the interesting – and much talked about – elements in Possession is the creation of the Victorian poets’ letters and journals and specifically poetry – that brings them to life in a way that gives further clues to the depth of their bond.  The journals of Blanche as well as family members in France add more and more depth and intrigue as out detectives follow the trail of the relationship, from letters to what seems like a joint holiday to Yorkshire, and the aftermath – what happened to precipitate the returning of Christabel’s letters?  And we get to read the poetry of each as well and see the way their relationship affected their work, even to the point where each use the same line in their own poems.  Christabel’s references to burning and ‘ash’ can now be seen in a new light, too, what with her love for Ash.  Some critics have said that Byatt’s efforts at creating authentic Victorian poetry falls way short, for it is too busy trying to include clues that us detectives can spot, rather than being poetry for its own sake.  In one of the letters, Ash writes, [p132]:

What makes me a Poet, and not a novelist – is to do with the singing of the language itself.  For the difference between poets and novelists is this – that the former write for the life of the language – and the latter write for the betterment of the world.

What then, are we to make of Byatt who shows attempts to be both?!  Whether or not her poetry it is up to the standard of real-life Victorians, it all adds to the fun in my view, and there are some memorable images in them.

Of course, what’s fun for us is not necessarily fun for some of the characters in the book.  Ash is a married man, and believes that he can love two women at the same time.  In a way, Roland has two bites at the apple, too, although he realises that his long-standing relationship with his current partner, Val, isn’t working and extricates himself from it before we see whether the slightly tangential relationship with Maud has any legs or not.  Unfortunately for our Victorian lovers, their tryst is not so harmless – as all those dark portents suggest.

The way things resolve is lovely in the way it includes some very Victorian-authentic coincidences!

Great fun.

The Guardian Bookclub has a discussion on Possession here.

Possession by AS Byatt



ISBN: 9780099503927

511 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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The Dilettante’s Rules of Reading: #47: “Any novel that uses the word ‘menagerie’ must be good.” 

Indeed!  So you can perhaps imagine my high level of expectation for a novel that uses ‘menagerie’ in its title, right?   And right from the open, Jamrach’s Menagerie doesn’t disappoint.  It kicks-off with these wonderful lines:

I was born twice.  First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began

Immediately engaging, it reminded me of the vivid start to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, (see my review here), which ironically won the 2011 Orange Prize beating out a strong shortlist — and the long-listed Jamrach’s Menagerie.      

So sets in motion the story of Jaffy Brown, recounted in the first person, who is rescued out of the jaws of the tiger by Mr Jamrach himself.  Mr Jamrach has Tim Linver, a boy near Jaffy’s age, buy Jaffy a raspberry puff, perhaps in part to purchase his silence.  For a poor boy like Jaffy, such a treat is a wonder, but the taste of the raspberry puff comes back to haunt him later in the book in a way that he couldn’t at that point imagine.  Jamrach offers him a job working in his menagerie, into which exotic animals from all over the world are brought back in order to satisfy the curiosity of rich gentlemen in 19th Century London.    

There he develops a fraught friendship with Tim, and is introduced through him to his sister, Ishbel, who he develops quite a crush for, as well as Dan Rymer, Jamrach’s animal hunter.  When Tim is sent off with Dan to the South Pacific to bring back a dragon on the whale ship Lysander, Jaffy feels compelled to go with them on the adventure of a lifetime.    

There follows a wonderful series of scenes, including whale hunts at sea and dragon hunts on a remote, jungle-covered island.  There are ill portents aplenty, surfacing before they even find the dragon.  Trying to locate it, they go from island to island talking to the locals, who some on the ship fear might be cannibals…  [p140]:

Then we had the Lord’s Prayer – ‘… deliver us from evil…’ – hanging our heads and thinking about cannibals and swamps and monsters awaiting us tomorrow.

Then when the hunting party finds the almost mythical beasts, Jaffy sees [p156]:

A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. 

The subsequent hunt is breath-taking stuff, wonderfully vivid, a joy to read. 

With their dragon caught, they cage him on the ship and start out for home, a passage in which their lives are placed in peril, chased by storms, water spouts, and bad luck.  With the dragon secured in its pen in the fo’c’s’le, we have Jaffy ruminating on their new passenger thus, [p177]:

How was it that we became so afraid of the dragon?  Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more.  We took on bad luck with that creature

When disaster strikes, the question becomes: to what lengths will people go in order to survive against impossible odds?  Birch executes these scenes with such gut-wrenching accuracy it’s impossible to put the book down. 

The story is based on a combination of unrelated, actual events.  Jamrach was a real, Victorian-era importer of animals, and a boy did go up to a tiger which had escaped its cage and try to pat it only to be bitten and rescued by the owner.  The second event is the sinking of the whaleship Essex (which of course provided the inspiration for Melville’s Moby-Dick), and those who survived it.   

There are lovely nods to Moby-Dick.  Ishbel for Ishmael, for instance.  And Jaffy seeing a painting of a ship in Jamrach’s shop, just as Ishmael sees one in the pub-cum-boarding house he stays in the night before he climbs aboard his own ship.  Says Jaffy, [p38]:

The raised lantern revealed a painting of a curious vessel that reared up tall out of the sea at either end, a high-shouldered, many-turreted, floating castle of a ship, a thing upon which in a dream you might embark and sail away to the ends of the earth

There are, no doubt, many others. 

Vivid right from the start, Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent read, and Jaffy Brown and the crew he sails with are memorable characters.  I’ll not look at a raspberry puff in the same way again! 

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Text Publishing


ISBN: 9781921758959

346 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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(#69): The Finkler Question: Howard Jacobson in discussion with Rick Gekoski

Well, confession time: although I managed to read a few of the authors’ books that I went to sessions on today, such as Tea Obreht and Kim Scott, I haven’t yet got to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.  As Darren Hinch might have said: “Shame, Dilettante, Shame!”  And it seems that it is a shame as this session was so entertaining.  Jacobson seemed more comedian than author, but of course, one would expect that as that is his thing: comic fiction.  It will be very difficult for me to convey the humour in static, bland, black on white text.  I thoroughly recommend you all hunt down the audio (possibly video too?) recordings on the SWF website when they get them up, you’ll have great fun. 

Given Finkler’s Man Booker Prize win Jacobson was asked by Rick Gekoski what his views on literary prizes were.  He replied by saying that he has two views: one when he hasn’t won (they are the worst things, an abomination), and one when he does win (literary life is healthy and all is right with the world)!  He said he could never be a judge.  He is a writer not a reader.  He couldn’t read that many books, he said.  When he was shortlisted, he thought for moment, ‘I’ve won’ – as it meant the judges had read his book at least twice and for some just getting past the first page of his books is a problem!  He had many funny tales of his mother.  She told him he wouldn’t win, it was too Jewsih – he said that as a Jewish mother she couldn’t stand her son being in a state of hope!  (Apparently when he was accepted into Oxford he got his acceptance letter and told his mother he was in – she said, ‘let’s just check the envelope was addressed correctly!)  So he went to the Booker presentation dinner not feeling nervous as by then he had calmed down and wasn’t nervous, unlike everyone else.  As Andrew Motion, the chair of judges last year, summarised the winner, he was using words that Jacobson thought described Peter Carey’s book, then others’ books, until there was one word that caught his ear and he thought, I’m going to win this.  But then came the announcement that the winner was the Finkler Qu- and he thought, Damn, some guy called Finkler has won!  (But he did have an acceptance speech ready, he says he always has one ready, even on Oscars night he has one ready!). 

When he was asked why his books are so polarising, he said it was because laughter is divisive – comedy is harder to get people to agree on.  One look at people’s reviews on Amazon or the blogosphere will tell you that.  But when all is said and done Finkler will have outsold all his other novels combined.  He mentioned a very curious fact: that he has been #1 in Pakistan.  When asked why that might be so, he said that he always saw the flip side of questions and said, I don’t know why I’m number one, but the flip side is this: why haven’t I always been #1 in Pakistan?!  Still he thought it wonderful that Osama Bin Laden might have been captured because he was so deeply engrossed in the stories of Jewish men in London!

Jacobson has a long history with Australia and with Sydney in particular – he lectured at Sydney University for three years ‘way back’ and said of his time that he loved it, that he was having too much fun, that to work, to become a success, he needed to get back to dreary old England.  Too much fun can be a bad thing. 

When it was said that he is often compared to Philip Roth, he said he prefered to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen.  He spoke lovingly about Persuasion.  He said both he and Austen both write about social comedy.  Other influences include all the English titans: Dickens and Austen particularly, and all the big names, as well as ‘the Russians’: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. 

He did one reading from The Finkler Question.  He said of the book it is a tragedy, but one that should, he hopes, make us laugh out loud. 

I don’t think anyone in the audience left without a smile on their face.  Really great fun.  And Finkler is going straight to the top of the To Be Read Tower!

That’s it for Thursday.  Bring on Friday! 

The D!  🙂

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After being wowed by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (see my review here), I thought it would be interesting to revisit another celebrated colonial-era ‘first-contact’ novel: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  It is the story of poverty-stricken Thames waterman William Thornhill, convicted to hang for the theft of Brazil wood, and his wife, Sal.  Thornhill escapes hanging only to be transported to New South Wales and after being assigned to his wife and making some progress in the ‘Camp’ that would become Sydney, builds a successful shipping business ferrying goods and produce to and from the farms on the Hawkesbury River, north ofSydney.  This is the ‘secret river’ of the novel’s title: [p100]:

Thornhill strained to find that secret river.  In every direction, the reaches of Broken Bayseemed to end in yet another wall of rock and forest.  A man could sail for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury.    

(As an aside, this is not only lyrical writing, but also historically accurate: when the first explorers set off from Sydney to explore Broken Bay they completely missed the main river so hidden was its course.)

It is on his first trip up the river, helping an older lighterman, Thomas Blackwood, that Thornhill spies a plot of land which he calls Thornhill’s Point, and a yearning for it is kindled, a longing to own a piece of land that would be beyond him in London.  All he had to do was pitch up and take it – oh, and convince his Missus that it was a good idea.  There were a lot of stories inSydneyabout troubles with the aboriginals on the Hawkesbury so she is quite nervous about moving there.  So too is Thornhill.

Right from the start Grenville has Thornhill facing up to the aboriginals, even if it is old ‘Scabby Bill’, an old native who dances for a sup of rum in Sydney.  There is a sense that things will not work out well.  Thornhill thinks, [p5]: “There were worse things than dying: life had taught him that.  Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.”

Grenville’s writing is evocative; her sense of place is exacting.  Thornhill grows up in grinding, stomach-aching poverty inLondon, where the [p9] “light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls.”  Have a look at those word choices(!): struggled, small, cracked, soot, veiled: his life reeks of cold, hunger, and want.

He admires Sal and enjoys being in her house, [p17]:  “It was easy to wish to belong to this house … He could imagine how he would grow into himself in the warmth of such a home.  It … was the feeling of having a place.”

This theme of having a home, something of his own, feeds his desire to set up on the secret river.  There, Thornhill and Sal – as well as their burgeoning brood of children – come into the realm of a hardy bunch of white-settler neighbours, although the closest is an hour away.  Some of these are intent on eradication of the natives, people like Smasher Sullivan and Sagitty Birtles.  Others, like Blackwood, are more than sympathetic to the natives.  Blackwood has had a daughter to an aboriginal woman.  Tensions are already high between these various factions, and whenever they get together talk quickly turns to the question of the latest ‘depredations’ of the natives.

One of the great plot elements here is Sal’s great reluctance to leaveSydneyand take up land on the Hawkesbury.  They come to an agreement: she would give him five years and then they would return toLondon.  The deal sets up great tension.  We know he wants to stay and she wants to leave.  What will give?

Thornhill plants corn on his land, in part to say to all-comers, ‘this is my land.’  In the process he rips out the yam daisies that are a staple for the local aboriginals.  This theft of food supply is an oft-repeated early flashpoint in colonial settlements around Australia, and is thus very realistic.

Elsewhere, historical accuracy has been questioned.  Much has been made of the climax of the book as well as how believable it is for Smasher to get away with his constant acts of depravity against the natives.  Aboriginal Law works on a ‘payback’ system.  Whilst aboriginals had a collective system of guilt in which the perpetrator’s family members could be substituted for ritual payback, aboriginals picked out the guilty where they could.  Watkin Tench, a first fleet lieutenant, told the death of the governor’s game keeper, who it seems, was speared for payback for his presumed killings of aboriginals.  It stretches credulity, say critics, that Smasher was not subject to payback by the local aboriginals, particularly as he lives by himself.  Such are the dangers of historical fiction!  It seems that, for some, it is not good enough writing a gripping ‘story’, a work of historical fiction must be believable in every sense of the history of the time.  I’m in two minds about this.  Stories should ‘ring true’ but at the end of the day they are fiction.  Grenville was at pains to point out that The Secret River was a work of fiction and not history.  Smasher is an evil man but a good fictional character, just as Blackwood is a good character.  They each serve their purpose in building the conflict that drives the story.

What Grenville does brilliantly is make us sympathise with a character who will end up doing something unspeakable.  Some point to the unusual novelistic end where Thornhill goes unpunished for his deeds.  Yet Thornhill is punished: one of his sons, Dan, who grew up on the river and swam with black children and learned some of their ways, like how to make fire, deserts Thornhill and goes to live with the broken Blackwood.  This estrangement pains Thornhill.  But what pains him even more is his searching of the ridge-tops at the end with his looking glass, trying to spot an aboriginal still living in the wilds.  One gets the feeling that had he his time again he would have made another choice.  It’s not the punishment society should meter out to him, but it is a never-ending suffering all the same.

Thornhill and Sal are left altered by the events: [p324-5]:

They were loving to each other still.  She smiled at him with that sweet mouth.  He took her hand to feel its narrowness in his own and she did not resist.  Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong to just him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited.  But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent space.  Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock. 

Also eloquent are the many descriptive passages of the Australian environment, from the bush aroundSydneyto the river landscape of the Hawkesbury.   Thornhill’s first night inSydneyis spent listening: [p3]:

Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile. 

A month or two back I read Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, her memoir of the process of writing the book.  (I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to ‘see behind the curtain’ so-to-speak; for anyone else, it might break the spell.)  One of the interesting sections in that book was a chapter on how hard she had to work to get the dialogue right.  She ended up taking advice from Annie Proulx who talked about the rhythm of the dialogue, how altering word order and using the odd old word changes the ‘sound’.  Grenville writes in Searching:

… I decided that my job as a novelist wasn’t to reconstruct the authentic … eighteenth-century vernacular.  My job was to produce something that sounded authentic.

She sourced dialogue from Old Bailey Court Sessions which are now online.  The dialogue comes in short bursts, in italics, subsumed within paragraphs.  Characters often talk around things rather than in a direct manner.  It’s a very interesting re-creation of 18th century dialogue.  Mostly I found it convincing, (although the repeated ‘Damn your eyes’ became a little tiresome!)

It is interesting that Grenville refers to her protagonist throughout the book as ‘Thornhill’ rather than ‘William’, something she repeated for her character Rooke in her wonderful follow-up novel The Lieutenant (see my review).  I wonder why this is?  Is it because she didn’t want us to get too close to Thornhill, or is it simply a choice based on the way people were known in 1800?  If you have any insight, let me know.

When I first read The Secret River I thought theLondon section a little long.  This time round I thought the pacing was excellent.  (It’s funny how we change our minds on some things with a second reading.)

The Secret River has elements of similarity with That Deadman Dance – the dwindling sources of food, the blundering settlers, the clash of cultures, the demise of the natives – but Scott’s novel is elegiac and offers a sense of possibility and hope.  The Secret River is a very different animal.  Both are excellent.  Let’s hope that we can build not as William Thornhill does – covering the fish carved by the aboriginals in the rock with his stone-walled home – but as Bobby Wabalanginy would have us do, with a sense of togetherness.

The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (won by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (see my review here); for mine, The Secret River is the better book).

There’s an interesting discussion of the book on the Guardian’s Book Club website, including an interview with Kate Grenville: see here.

There’s also a lively discussion on The Secret River on the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s website.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing



334 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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I’ve wanted for some time to read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) back-to-back with Oscar and Lucinda (1988).  My (distant!) memories of Illywhacker was that it was every bit the classic that O&L turned out to be, but somehow it seems to have been overshadowed by the latter’s Booker Prize-winning success.  An example of this is on the front cover of my old edition where it is pointed out that Illywhacker was written “by the author of Oscar and Lucinda”!

There are some interesting parallels between them.  They both have first person to third person narrative ‘frames’.  I’ve noted with O&L that this seemed illogical, but with Illywhacker the wonderful open silences any similar concern we might have … in this story, anything goes:

My name is Herbert Badgery.  I am a hundred and thirty-nine years old and something of a celebrity. … I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.  I say that early to set things straight.  Caveat emptor.

What a wonderful open.

The narrative frame works better in Illywhacker for other reasons too: though some of the scenes are a stretch for our first-person narrator, he does have connections and shares correspondence with other characters which makes this ‘reach’ believable.

Illywhacker is a big rollicking picaresque romp covering three generations, with helpings of lyrical ‘hyper-realism’ and a dash or two of magical realism.  There are so many story threads it’s hard to summarise the plot.  Herbert is an early Australian aviator and car seller and dreams of making Australian planes and Australian cars.  He almost secures funding but his scheme to make planes fails and he seems to give up on selling cars because none are Australian.  This notion of industries being sold or owned by Americans and then later Japanese interests rather than being our own is perhaps the central underlying theme of the novel.  When Herbert’s son Charles buys a Holden and proclaims it an Australian car, something his father should be proud of, Herbert can’t contain his anger, saying that Holden is American-owned and that the car is not Australian.

Alloyed to this theme of ownership is the associated question of national identity, how strong it is and how it places us in the wider world.  Much has changed in the past 26 years since the book was first published, though our ‘local’ car industry is still owned by the major international conglomerates.  I wonder what Carey must think of the economic situation in the US now (where he lives), the run-down of the uncompetitive US car manufacturers and the unrelated fact that most of the US government debt is owned by China…

In any event, events spiral out from Herbert’s efforts to secure the funding from a man named Jack McGrath who puts up Herbert in his rambling well-to-do mansion after Herbert crash-lands his plane into a farm next to where Jack and his wife, Molly, and daughter, Phoebe, are picnicking.  Herbert, an inveterate liar and womaniser, eyes off Phoebe as well as her old man’s money, selling him the dream of an Australian aeronautical industry.  Poor Jack dies, possibly of shame when he introduces Herbert to his business associates and the truth begins to unravel.  He comes back to haunt Herbert as a ghost after old Herbert shacks up with spoilt Phoebe.  This is poignant given Herbert and Jack’s earlier conversation where Jack told Herbert he did not favour older men with younger women.  Herbert builds a make-shift home for Phoebe (who he marries, although it turns out he already is!) and Molly out on the mudflats on land he doesn’t own, but it is not enough for Phoebe who, after bearing him two children, takes off with her female lover for Sydney.

And this is just the start of the novel!

We learn of Herbert’s upbringing, how he was taken in and reared by an old Chinese man, named Goon Tse Ying.  Ying teaches Herbert the trick of disappearing.  He warns Herbert not to use it as one of the repercussions of the trick is the making of dragons which bring evil into the world.  Needless to say Herbert uses the trick in order to impress a woman, Leah Goldstein, who becomes his lover.  While the trick impresses Leah it does indeed summon tragedy into Herbert’s life after his children try to imitate him.

Dragons and snakes form a recurring motif throughout.  Herbert’s son Charles becomes expert in the handling of snakes and then all creatures.  This skill is used by Herbert to run scams in country pubs.  It is also a talent which Charles then uses to create ‘The Best Pet Shop in the World’ in an arcade between George and Pitt Streets (reminiscent of our lovely Strand arcade) in Sydney in later years when Herbert is in jail.  Charles makes this into a success with his bare hands, but it transpires that some of the funding for the venture has come from an oil company in the US.  It seems that even pet stores have been sold off to foreign interests!

There is so much to love about this story.  The writing is Carey at his best: the historical details are vivid, the character sketches Dickensian, the descriptions of landscape lyrical.  Take for instance, [p62]:

The line of dwarf yellow cypress pines along Blobell’s Hill was smudged by dull grey cloud and nothing in the landscape was distinct except the particularly clear sound of a crow above the saltpans flying north towards O’Hagen’s.  It sounded like barbed wire.

Leah has a laugh [p209] which is “a tangle like blackberries, sweet, prickly, untidy, uncivilized…”

There are wonderful descriptions of wildlife too, glorious parrots.  (Any story that has king parrots in it is, in my view, a winner.)

And there is this advice on Sydney that Herbert gives Hissao, [p508]:

I showed him, most important of all, the sort of city it was – full of trickery and deception.  If you push against it too hard you will find yourself leaning against empty air.  It is never, for all its brick and concrete, quite substantial and I would not be surprised to wake one morning and find the whole thing gone, with only the grinning facade of Luna Park rising from the blue shimmer of eucalyptus bush.

The plot continues to spiral and I won’t try to describe it any further.  Suffice to say there are shenanigans aplenty when Herbert gets out of jail and comes to Sydney to live with Charles and the menageries of people and pets he has acquired – including his wife, Emma, who decides she’d rather live in a cage.  There is more triumph and tragedy.  There are tales of communists and smuggling.  There are deserved digs at the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ of the mid 2oth century.  There is Carey touching on aboriginal issues too, albeit briefly.  There is Herbert’s grandson Hissao’s desperate effort to rescue the shop, which he does by securing Japanese funding, turning the pet shop into a bizarre and macabre show of people rather than just pets.  Herbert himself becomes one of the displays.  The selling off of Australia is complete – we begin to sell ourselves.

There are, of course, differences between Illywhacker and O&LO&L’s characterisation is deeper and sharper, more thoughtful – there is a lot of symbolism in Oscar and Lucinda’s characters.  These facets are to be expected in a book that focuses on two people.  Illywhacker spreads time across three generations and multiple wives and lovers.  Back stories are always fleshed out, even for minor characters.  There is a lot more ‘going on’.  But the theme of the selling out of Australian industry to overseas, of demurring to older or more confident nations, of being unsure of ourselves, comes across quite strongly.  There are a lot of characters serving the overall thematic structure.

If it has faults, say its length and its long back-stories to minor characters, they are for me easily overlooked by the richness and joy in such diversions and how Carey ties them together.

In the end you can’t compare apples with oranges.  Oscar and Lucinda is a tragic love story built upon a folly.  There is almost folly here too, but only to show the extremes with which the selling of Australian business to overseas interests is taken, to heighten the deep comic thrust of the narrative – for Illywhacker is a very funny book.  For me, Illywhacker is every bit as good as Oscar and Lucinda.  Rather than being cast in the latter’s shadow, it deserves its own spotlight.  It is a great book, Carey at his exuberant best.  It has kept me silent company all these years and it remains one of my all time favourites.

As an aside, it seems to me that Illywhacker and Steve Toltz’s Booker shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole share the same DNA.  They are both big rambling multi-generational comic tales that shine a light on what it means to be Australian, though each through their own unique lens.  (Their protagonist narrators both spend time in prison too.)  Lovers of one will enjoy the other.  What other books do you see as fitting into this particularly Australian comic story-telling cast?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and/or whether you think Illywhacker stands up to Oscar and Lucinda.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 5/5

Illywhacker by Peter Carey

faber and faber


ISBN: 9780571139491

560 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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