A couple of months ago I happened to read a report in a daily newspaper announcing the 2009 Booker prize ‘long list’ – 13 books which were under active consideration for the shortlist, from which the eventual winner would be chosen. I’ve generally ignored Booker prize candidate novels in the past. I did try a couple one year – “Flaubert’s Parrot” which was shortlisted, and Hotel du Lac which was the winner, and I couldn’t get into either of them. I couldn’t even read “Midnight’s Children”. Given all this, I’d decided that literary fiction was obviously not for me, I’d be best sticking to my scifi and thrillers. But over the years I’ve found myself getting more & more impatient with poorly-written books; the quality of Neal Stephenson’s books, or Iain (M) Banks’, for example, is so much better than the average book in these genres. Anyway, when i read the report my eye was caught by a comment to the effect that not only were the books well-written, they were also ‘jolly good reads’, so I decided to investigate and bought four of the eventual shortlist: “Wolf Hall”, “The Children’s Book”, “Little Stranger”, and “The Glass Room”. So far I’ve read the first three. It’s been an interesting experience.
“Wolf Hall” was the first I read. At first I had trouble with its present-tense narrative, but I soon became accustomed to this. It could be described as a historical novel – it’s set in the court of King Henry VIII, from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell – and I found the story gripping. Part of this was because english history teaching normally presents Cromwell as a thoroughly Bad Person, but this book portrays him as a man of extraordinary abilities and charm – which is likely, given that although he was a commoner he rose to be Lord Chancellor, among other high offices. There’s also a frisson because you know how the various characters’ stories will end: Ann Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Thomas More, all these and more are major characters. And of course there’s Cromwell himself; we know that he’ll meet his end on the block, although this novel ends some years before then, with him almost at his apogee. I also found another aspect of my reaction to it interesting: the writing is so rich, so full-bodied (so to speak) that I couldn’t read more than five or six pages at a time, I had to stop (even if only for a few minutes) and digest what I’d just read. This was a great introduction to the exercise.
Next I read “Little Stranger”. This was altogether harder going. It’s very well written, technically, but the problem I found was that I simply didn’t like any of the characters. The book (set just after the second world war) includes characters from the upper class (or at least the gentry), middle-class professionals, who are generally unsure of their place, and various lower/working class characters. On one level it’s the story of a disastrous relationship, doomed because the two people in it have absolutely no common ground, and furthermore either cannot see this, or (more likely) are too constrained by social pressures to be honest with each other. On another level it’s a sort-of ghost story, but (correctly, I think) this is never explained or made explicit. (Althoug there may be a passage near the end thaty it might be worth readin again.) As I say the book is well-written technically, in that the author writes these unpleasant and unsympathetic characters, and their relationship, perfectly, but I didn’t warm to any of it. In the end I was reading it to see just how awfully it would end for them all. Answer: about as awfully as it possibly could. There is one other ‘character’ in the book, a crumbling stately home, and I suppose it was in reading the description and evocation of this that I came closest to warming to the book.
I’ve just finished “The Children’s Book” (I took it on the Solstice cruise, to read on sea days). This was another dense and complex book to read, with a cast of thousands – well, several dozen. Again it’s historical, set between 1895 and 1919, with the bulk of the narrative set in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It describes the events in the lives of children (and later adolescents & young adults) from several different families, all involved in the Arts and Crafts and other progressive movements of the late 19th century, as they grow up and mature. I certainly cared about these characters: they are finely and sympathetically-drawn, and the developing story of their growth, their involvement with each other (in various ways), is well written. Perhaps the female characters are better-written than the majority of the males. For example, there are several seduction scenes, each one involving the same man but different women, and in each case the woman’s position – her reason for allowing herself to be seduced at a time when the sex act could have serious or even fatal consequences, her reactions to the event and her decisions after the event, are all well written and I could empathise with them; but I gained no real feel for the man’s motivation in his pursuit of so many women (other than the obvious one). I could also find fault with the way that some characters appear, are well-drawn, and then seem to disappear (for example, one called Arthur Dobbin). There are horrors present: there are obviously episodes of serious sexual abuse going on in one of the households but (perhaps wisely) the author does not make us voyeurs, and almost at the end of the book there is a brutal chapter in which the the western front is evoked in all its dreadfulness, and several of the major characters are killed. I think this serves to remind us just how awful the great war was; characters that we have come to know and love are simply wiped out, not really with heroism but as a result of blind duty at best, and of chance, accident and error in most cases.
As for The Glass Room, I’ve only just started it so a report will have to come later.
I’ve certainly enjoyed the exercise. I shall look out for more books of this quality and, it should be said, size: both Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book are longer than 600 pages.