Booker book review #6 – “A Passage North” by Anuk Arudpragasam and my prediction for the winner

My final review from this year’s Booker shortlist, and just getting in under the wire, since the winner is to be announced at 7.15 this evening in a live broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre. You can listen on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, This is the first time, in the four or five years that I have been setting myself this challenge, that I have managed to read all six books in the six or so weeks between the publication of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. I have really only managed it by being able to listen to some of the books (four of them) on audio while I was out walking or running and, in recent days, while cooking, shopping or drying my hair!

I hope that my appreciation of the last couple of books I read has not been compromised by my having read them quickly. I particularly regret this in relation to this last book that I tackled A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is by far the most meandering, langorous and philosophical of the six books and I would rather have read it at just such a pace than at speed. The author is a young Sri Lankan Tamil who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University in the US. This is his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016 and widely acclaimed. Both novels draw heavily on Arudpragasam’s background and his home country’s troubles during and after its three decades-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamil author Anuk Ardpragasam’s has a philosophy PhD and A Passage North is his second novel

A Passage North takes place some time after the end of the civil war, which concluded in 2009 when government forces finally defeated the insurgents (known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’) who had fought to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. The UN estimated that as many as 100,000 deaths may be attributable to the war, including about 40,000 civilians, and the Sri Lankan Government has often been accused of war crimes. The civil war pervades every aspect of this novel.

The central character of the novel is Krishan, a young man who works for a non-governmental organisation in Colombo, the nation’s capital. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are widowed. His father was killed in an explosion during the war. The novel opens with the death of Rani, his grandmother Appamma’s private carer. She was engaged by the family when Appamma’s health deteriorated, and Krishan and his mother needed help with caring duties due to their work commitments. It is Rani’s daughter who comes to the house to inform them of Rani’s death; she had been discovered in a well, her neck broken, and it is assumed that a tragic accident has occurred and that she fell in. We soon learn, however, that Rani a refugee from the north, had lost both her sons in the war and suffers from depression and anxiety.

This is a novel about relationships conducted in the context of the aftermath of a civil war. Krishan has known nothing but war in his life and yet, as a resident of Colombo, he has not been as directly affected as others. Life, its meaning, the impact on society and on individual citizens of protracted conflict and wartime atrocities are explored by young Krishan. He is on various journeys in this novel, whether it is an evening walk through the city or a train journey to the north to attend Rani’s cremation and during these travels he contemplates his relationships. All are considered in the context of whether the person is more or less affected by the war. For example, he considers at length, his relationship with his girlfriend Anjum, a young Indian woman who works as a political activist. But her distance from the Sri Lankan civil war makes him feel distant from her. When he considers what Rani has gone through, he seems to feel that he can never fully connect with Anjum because they lack an essential experience in common. There is so much suffering, whether it is Rani’s or his grandmother’s whose health is declining rapidly, that he cannot take seriously what he sees as Anjum’s more trivial preoccupations.

This is a powerful novel that deserves a slower and more considered reading than I have given it. It has been described as ‘Proustian’, with its long meandering passages. It is beautifully written and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Neil Shah.

So, who is going to win the Booker?

Last year, I read four of the six novels on the shortlist before the winner was announced. Of those, the standout book for me was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so I was delighted when it won. Having read all six books on the shortlist this year, the one that I have most enjoyed has been Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I also think this is the standout work. Its scale, its scope, its concept, characters and the quality of the writing are superb. It simply has everything you want from a book, including a cracking story. This was also the case with Shuggie Bain, which is why I wonder whether the Booker judges will, for the second year running, award the prize to such a novel. A case could be made for all the nominees actually, but I will stick my neck out and say that if it’s not Great Circle I think it will be The Promise. Like A Passage North it explores the impact of national trauma through the lens of individual crises. I loved all the books this year, any one of them would be a worthy winner.

Booker book review #5 – “The Fortune Men”

This is my penultimate review of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, just one more to go before the winner is announced tomorrow night. Nadifa Mohamed is a Somali-British novelist and The Fortune Men is her third novel. She lectures in creative writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London (my very own alma mater!) and attended the University of Oxford. She was born in Hargeisa in what was then Somaliland, but moved to the UK with her parents when she was a child. She is the only British author on the shortlist.

The rest of this review contains spoilers.

The Fortune Men is a fictionalised account of a true story about the last man to be hanged in Cardiff in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali merchant seaman who came to Britain to escape poverty in his homeland and settled in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. There was already a significant immigrant population in the area, including other Somalis, but they still faced discrimination and racial abuse. For Mattan this was made worse by the fact that he married a local woman, Laura Williams, and they had three sons.

Lily Volpert was a middle-aged shopkeeper in the town. She and her sister were themselves immigrants, Jews who escaped the growing Nazi threat in mainland Europe, and they too experienced discrimination and abuse. The picture painted in this book is of a town divided, disparate communities existing alongside one another, but with violence and antipathy always beneath the surface, and often above it.

When Lily is murdered one March evening in her shop, her throat brutally slashed while her sister and niece prepared dinner in the adjoining apartment, the police immediately start looking for a black man; Lily’s young niece reported seeing a dark man in the shop doorway around the same time. The evidence upon which Mahmood is arrested and charged is flimsy and entirely circumstantial, so much so that he assumes it will be only a matter of time before he is released. To him, the arrest seems ridiculous and he is both affronted and angry. Mahmood’s pride does not help him; it seems only to further raise the heckles of the local detectives whose only interest is in securing a speedy conviction.

We learn a lot about Mahmood’s background in Somaliland, his family, his faith and his upbringing. We also learn a lot about Lily, the murder victim, and her family. Both are victims of a racist society and a corrupted justice system. The novel makes it clear that neither the victim, the accused or the community are served by the police or the courts in this case. The chapter covering the trial is interesting. It is written as if from court records and the plain reported proceedings expose the sham nature of trial. These scenes are heartbreaking and made me feel ashamed.

A newspaper cutting from the time of the events of the novel

Mahmood and Laura were living apart at the time of the events in the novel; Mahmood lived a shady life as a gambler and petty thief and there were clearly tensions in their relationship. But the love between them and for their children comes across clearly, particularly when Mahmood is being held in prison. Ultimately, Mahmood’s defence could have been strengthened by an alibi had he not chosen to protect Laura from an uncomfortable truth. In real life, Laura fought for decades to clear her husband’s name and his conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 in the first case to be referred to it by the newly-formed Criminal Review Cases Commission.

This is a story that needed to be told, and Nadifa Mohamed has done the job powerfully and sensitively in The Fortune Men. I listened to this one on audio and it was beautifully read by Hugh Quarshie.

Highly recommended.

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