Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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Is there any point reading Shakespeare?

My book group decided a couple of months ago to have a go at reading a Shakespeare play. We decided on Much Ado About Nothing (the one with Beatrice and Benedick), possibly not the best choice we could have made, on reflection, but we fancied something light. We spent less time discussing it than any other book we have read in the three years or so we have been meeting. True, it was the same night we had scheduled in a viewing of The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a book we had all loved, so there was less discussion time than usual, but even if we had had the whole evening, I doubt we would have found much more to say. We were just rather underwhelmed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a lover of Shakespeare, and have studied most of the plays, thanks to having done a degree in English literature. Many of the comedies don’t do much for me, but, even reading Much Ado About Nothing again, I could appreciate the cleverness and the writing. And it’s not even that it’s out of date – some of the shenanigans, yes, they stretch credibility to a modern audience, but, really, are they that different to what’s going on in Love Island or Friends, or any one of the countless melodramas teens watch?

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I’ve given this a lot of thought recently as my children go through their GCSE Shakespeare texts. Generally, they’re a bit more exciting than Much Ado; my son studied The Merchant of Venice, which he found interesting, but not much more, and currently, my elder daughter is studying Macbeth, my personal favourite because it was my first encounter with the Bard, at the same age as she is now, but which she is finding rather laborious. Perhaps I was just lucky I had a wonderful English teacher (Mrs P. I hope you are reading this!), but kids just seem to find the whole process a bit dull, just as my book group seemed to reading Much Ado! And it’s not ‘kids of today’ – relatively speaking, Shakespeare is just as old as it was when I was studying over thirty years ago. And can it really all be down to the teaching?

Part of me concludes that Shakespeare is just not meant to be read. It can be like wading through treacle when the language is complex or you have to look up words no longer in use. Teaching Shakespeare does still seem to involve reading it through line by line in the classroom, which can be deathly dull, especially when you are not the one reading. Shakespeare  was written to be performed and many of the nuances of direction and staging, (ie who might be hiding behind which arras) are simply lost in a straight reading. Actors are also paid to add something – they study their characters in depth so that they can interpret for the audience. They can also add tone of voice, facial expression, and body language which tells us much more about what is happening and has the potential to make the action and the themes much more relevant. Shakespeare’s themes are still relevant and we see his legacy in so much of what we read or watch – not least The Children Act. What about politicians’ behaviour around Brexit? The talk of Cabinet coups, challenges to leadership – it’s all so Shakespearean! And that is because Shakespeare’s themes come from his profound observations of the human condition – the scenery, the clothing, the words might change, but the events are essentially the same. And we lap it all up.

So, how to deal with Shakespeare going forward, for a younger readership. Yes, it’s a conundrum because you do need to sort of understand the language a bit before you can fully appreciate the play in performance. Bring back the travelling players, I say, to go around schools and perform that year’s GCSE text for the students, hold workshops with the kids, going through the more complex aspects. Not all children can afford to go to the theatre, but it’s essential they see it live in order to fully understand and appreciate it. And you never know, it might actually inspire a lifetime love of the man and his work, as it did for me, and a different perspective on what’s going on in the world today.

Would love to hear your thoughts – what has been your experience of either teaching or being taught Shakespeare?

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Books to look out for this Spring

The freaky February weather is behind us, those treacherous early Spring storms seem to have passed, and there are signs of Spring – things are sprouting in my garden (apart from all those snowdrops I planted last Autumn – hmm!) and it is warm enough to take the thick down lining out of my winter coat. The London Book Fair has been taking place this week, with all those publishers deciding what we are going to be reading in the coming months, and there are some fantastic new books to look out for. With the Easter holidays coming up in the next month or so, you may be looking for something to read yourself. Here are some of the newly published or soon to be published books that have caught my eye

The FiveThe Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This book has been getting a lot of coverage and tells the stories of the women raped and murdered in Victorian London by Jack the Ripper. Reclaiming a space for these women, the author seeks to make them more than just victims.

 

 

 

 

BookwormBookworm: a memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

I have been reading Lucy Mangan’s columns in The Guardian for years and have always loved her writing style. I have also always identified with the passion for reading she found she had as an introverted child. This looks like a nice read and one that will take you back to characters and places you may also have loved as a child.

 

 

SpringSpring by Ali Smith

The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Autumn was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in that year. Winter was published in 2017 (still on my TBR list) and here we now have Spring, due for publication on 28 March. It concerns the lives of three people living in a time of war in a country facing a crisis of identity. Remind you of anywhere?

 

 

 

girl balancingGirl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore

Having just completed Birdcage Walk, I’m really keen to get into some more Helen Dunmore and this collection of short stories looks like a perfect one to take on holiday. I don’t read very many short stories so this will be a bit of a departure for me.

 

 

 

LannyLanny by Max Porter

Just read a review of this and it sounds so intriguing that I can’t wait to get hold of it. Set in a small village not far from London, this book is about the many residents past and present who have lived there, and about the culture, history and folklore of the place, embodied by the slumbering woodland spirit Dead Papa Toothwort.

 

 

 

That should keep me going for a while!

What books are you looking forward to reading this Spring?

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YA book review – “The Hurting” by Lucy van Smit

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of literature for children and young people and that I review such books on here from time to time, not just because I think it’s good for ‘grown-ups’ to delve into these genres (you’re missing out if you don’t), but also because I know many of you often want recommendations for the youngsters you live with.

I picked up The Hurting from my local library recently (most now have online catalogues with a ‘What’s New’ section so you can browse new titles) and libraries are great for young readers because, unlike me, they often make a quick decision about whether they like something or not and if a book is worth their time, so it can be frustrating when they toss something aside after half an hour that you’ve paid £6 plus for!

Lucy van Smit is a first-time author and the publisher, Chicken House Books, has a good reputation for quality fiction for young people. It’s a YA book, for 15+ I’d say, as there are sexual references, some swearing, quite a bit of peril, and some challenging themes – cancer, alcoholism, death of a parent – all high-grade emotional stuff that teens seem to love! For me, it’s not the best YA book I’ve read this year, but then I’m judging it against The Disappearances, which I think is a phenomenal book, and Just Fly Away, which had a more concise and coherent plot and was for me more enjoyable. There is a lot going on in this book, perhaps too much.

The Hurting imgNell is in her late teens and lives with her father, a very religious alcoholic, and her sister, Harper, who has cancer. They are from Manchester but moved to Norway, ostensibly for Harper’s medical treatment. The girls’ mother, we learn, left when they were young and they have had no contact since. Nell is a confused young woman; she is the primary carer for her sister, their father either working or incapable most of the time, and she wants to be a singer-songwriter back in Britain, but finds herself cut off from any possibility of making a career in that field. She attends a local school where she experiences bullying and isolation. She decides to go back to the UK, without her family’s knowledge, for an audition, but gets into a spot of bother en route and meets Lukas, a handsome but mysterious boy. At first it appears he rescues her but we learn later that he in fact engineered the whole episode in order to entrap her.

There is an instant attraction between Nell and Lukas and Nell quickly falls in love with him. Lukas pursues Nell (and yes, that is the right word), and she is drawn into what can only be described as an edgy relationship with him. It turns out that Lukas is the son of the late Harry Svad, a Norwegian minerals entrepreneur (and Nell’s father’s employer who, mysteriously, her Dad seems to hate). Svad, along with his wife Rosa, has recently been killed in a helicopter crash. Lukas was not his biological son, however; he was discovered as a very young child living in a wolf pack in an area of forest Svad wanted to mine. Svad ‘rescued’ and adopted him, but Lukas cannot forgive him for killing the wolves he loved, and says he was also treated cruelly. This draws Nell further into a web of sympathy. Lukas has a baby brother, Pup, who, now an orphan, is in the care of social services. Lukas wants to adopt him when he turns 18 (very soon) but feels he needs to get Pup back now before events spiral out of control, and he says that by the time they catch up with him, he’ll be 18 so he’ll be able to adopt without a problem. By this stage he is well able to coerce Nell into kidnapping Pup from the foster carer.

Still with me? Yes, I struggled to suspend my disbelief too, but I suspect some young people would not! Nell goes along with Lukas’s plan, they kidnap the baby and then run away, back to the grand, extraordinary but isolated Svad home, via stolen car and light aircraft. They are pursued of course, though Lukas is careful to shield Nell from too much contact with the outside world where CCTV images of her are being splashed across news screens.

Spoiler alert: once at the Svad home, Nell begins to realise that Lukas has tricked her, that he actually wants to kill Pup, and frame her, and yet she cannot reconcile these facts with her intense passion for Lukas, the only person who appears to have shown her any love. His behaviour frightens her sufficiently, however, that she decides to escape with Pup (who it turns out is her half-brother, his dead mother, Rosa Svad, having also been Nell’s estranged Mum) but this involves a perilous trek through dangerous wolf-inhabited forest. With a baby.

Yes, there is a lot going on here; rather too many events, strands and themes for my liking, and I felt a bit overwhelmed. It rather lost me in the last third of the book, I’m afraid. However, for teens who need a lot of stimulation to keep their interest, this may suit. As I said, I found it hard to believe in the events, but, again, teens who like a touch of fantasy may be able to lose themselves in it and be more forgiving about the lapses in credibility. There were, in my view, some editorial oversights which annoyed me (including a frustrating number of typographical errors, grrr!), but most teens will overlook these. I loved the evocation of place – Norway provides a great setting for the book – and the author does well to convey the sense of threat as well as beauty in the natural world. Nell is a great character and her vulnerability and confusion, her difficult life, and her thwarted dreams may have a resonance for young people. Also, her journey, her survival against the odds and her ability ultimately to overcome her fears, some seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the effects of her first-love blindness, make her a positive role-model.

Recommended for the young people in your life, even if it wasn’t quite for me.

Have you read any good YA titles recently?

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Time for a little light reading

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have recently been reviewing each of the Man Booker shortlisted books. It’s a month since the winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, was announced, and I still haven’t finished all six books – I don’t know how on earth I thought I’d get them all read before the gala dinner! I’ve found them all pretty heavy going, to be honest, which is perhaps why it has taken me so long. And, I have to say, it’s been a bit bleak too!

The Mars Room imgSo much so that I had to have a break from all the heaviness to read something a little more uplifting and which didn’t tax my brain quite so much. I wasn’t very well last week and simply couldn’t face into The Mars Room (next on my Man Booker list) – if you have heard it is bleak, well it is! So far (not quite finished it yet). So, with my blanket, hot water bottle and cups of tea to hand I settled onto the sofa and read Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop cover to cover in one day. I simply could not put it down.

 

 

The Music Shop imgThis book came to my attention last year. I really liked the sound of it and recommended it in one of my ‘what to look our for this season’ blogs, so it was on my TBR list. Then I saw Rachel speak at a Writers & Artists Conference I was at in September. She was such a wonderful speaker, really warm, authentic and engaging, that I had to get a copy of this book and have been eager to start it. It was a joy and just what I needed, when I was feeling unwell and when my brain was starting to hurt from the Man Booker. Look out for my review of The Music Shop next week.

 

The Mars Room is quite good, but, for me, just unremittingly bleak. Yes, good fiction should challenge us, but sometimes you just need something that makes you feel up rather than down. I’ve found it quite a dark shortlist this year and I haven’t even started The Overstory yet which, since it is meant to be about climate change, I am fully expecting to be a sobering if not depressing read. Maybe that reflects the times we find ourselves in. It’s not just the subject matter though; some of the books, though I have admired them, have, at times, felt like wading through treacle. I felt like that about Everything Under, and I’m rather getting that feeling about The Mars Room. It is only the colourful prose style, with its American prison vernacular, that is keeping my attention at the moment, because it has little story to speak of, it seems to me.

The Music Shop on the other hand, was all story, all character, all cliffhanger, all page-turner. This high-brow literature, which, don’t get me wrong, I dearly love and support, is all very well, but sometimes you just need a jolly good read. Especially when your sinuses are blocked and your head hurts!

So it’s more Rachel Joyce on the TBR list for me, and a second wind to finish The Mars Room and complete that shortlist.

Happy reading everyone!

Are you drawn to literature that is dark or do you feel reading should always be about pleasure?

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Man Booker Review #4 – “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

This was my fourth read from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the most conventional I have read so far. The novel begins in Barbados in 1832 on a plantation owned by Erasmus Wilde, an Englishman who inherited the estate from an uncle on his mother’s side. He has been forced to manage the business as his father, a famous explorer who has spent most of his life away from home and family, shows no interest. As you might expect, Erasmus runs the plantation with cruelty and treats the slaves he has inherited (and now owns) as inhuman; they represent nothing more to him than units of work who must be managed and mistreated in order to keep them functioning. George Washington Black (‘Wash’) is a young boy at this time who has known nothing in his life apart from slavery. He lives on the plantation mainly in the care of Big Kit, a fellow slave who protects but also, at times, treats him cruelly, for what she sees as his own good, to harden him up for the life he will lead.

Washington Black imgWashington Black’s life is turned around, however, when Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher, or ‘Titch’, arrives at the plantation. He is an inventor, a man of science like his father, who does not share his brother’s views on slavery. Titch has come to Barbados in order to work on a flying machine he has designed and asks his brother for a helper. Erasmus loans him Washington Black and the boy goes to live in Titch’s quarters, helping him with drawings and experiments as well as practical household tasks. Titch discovers that Washington has considerable artistic talent as well as abilities which will be useful in his science projects and he teaches him to read. This change in Wash’s circumstances means he can probably never go back to being with the other slaves and the question is posed whether Titch has served his protégé well.

A cousin of the Wilde brothers, Philip, arrives at Faith plantation to convey the news that the men’s father is missing presumed dead. Titch is devastated, but for Erasmus this represents yet more administrative burden as it means he must now run all the family’s business. Philip remains at Faith plantation for many weeks, staying in Titch’s quarters, so Wash gets to know him well. He is a malign presence; on one occasion, while out with Titch observing the preparations for the flying machine he shouts an instruction to Wash that causes him to stand too close to a device that explodes. Wash suffers disfiguring facial burns and it is as if Philip knew it would happen.

One day, Philip takes Wash, to help him on a shooting trip, during which the troubled Philip turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It is immediately clear to 12 year old Wash that, as the only witness, he will be blamed and most likely executed. Wash returns to Faith to tell Titch, who is also quick to realise the implications. Titch decides they must leave immediately and he decides to launch the flying machine he has been working on. The night is a stormy one, however, and not ideal conditions for the launch of the ‘Cloud-cutter’, a bizarre contraption that seems to be a cross between a hot-air balloon and a rowing boat. Though it travels for a short distance, they have to finally crash land it on a boat in the ocean. Fortunately, the ship’s captain is sympathetic and allows the pair to sail with them to America.

Wash is now an escaped slave, and one instantly recognisable by his scarred face. Titch takes Wash with him on a search for his missing father (he does not believe that he died), but it becomes apparent that he wishes to separate from him. The two eventually find Titch’s father in the frozen north of Canada, and it is clear that the relationship between the two men is a difficult one that leaves Titch troubled. During a blizzard, Titch leaves their camp, and Wash finds himself alone and having to fend for himself, even more so when the old man eventually does die.

The rest of the novel is about how Wash makes his way in the world, evades capture by a slave-hunter and eventually finds himself in England, pursuing his passion for biology. Always, however, he is preoccupied by Titch’s abandonment of him and by the mystery of his own early life when he was transported from Africa. He finds some success and a settled life, but he becomes frustrated with the fact that his achievements will never be fully recognised, even in abolitionist England, because he is a black former slave.

This is an interesting and fascinating novel and I found the story deeply engaging. The characters are well-drawn and authentic and the issue of black slavery, the horrors of it and how it dehumanised all its victims, is vividly explored. The novel is broad in scope and beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. Like most of the books I have read so far from the shortlist (The Long Take excepted) there is a drop in pace about half to two thirds of the way through, and I do think this is an editing issue. There are parts that could have been slimmed down in my view.

That issue aside, it remains a great story, and I recommend it.

How did you rate this Man Booker shortlisted book?

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Man Booker shortlist review #3 – “Everything Under” by Daisy Johnson

This was my third book from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the one I have enjoyed the least so far. At just 277 pages it’s the shortest novel on the shortlist, but, I’m afraid to say, for me, the end could not come soon enough. At just 28, Daisy Johnson is apparently the youngest author ever to grace the shortlist, and her achievement is remarkable considering this is her debut novel (she has had a short story collection published previously). There is no doubting her talent: the concept of the book is ingenious (a modern re-telling of the Oedipus myth) and her prose is as fluid and alive as the river that dominates the book. However, for me, there was something in the execution that was missing.

Everything Under imgGretel is a 32 year old woman living alone in Oxford. She works as a lexicographer, a natural career for her as her life has been dominated by words – their invention, their use, and, perhaps also, their lack. She had an unconventional upbringing with an eccentric mother on a canal boat. In her early years, Gretel and her mother developed their own language, a succession of private words for things for which a single expressive term did not exist, for example “sheesh time” refers to a desire to spend time alone, and “Bonak” will come to mean something to be afraid of, something threatening.

Gretel has been estranged from her mother since she was 16 years old. It is remarkable that this young woman has managed to make any sort of life for herself at all, given the background which we come to learn about. But Gretel has always known that she would be reunited with her mother, either dead or alive. For years she has occasionally contacted morgues and hospitals to ask if any unclaimed, unidentified older women have been admitted. One day, a morgue assistant says that, in fact, yes, a middle-aged woman fitting Gretel’s description had been admitted. Gretel believes this is it, and she goes off fully expecting to find the body of her mother. She is disappointed to find that it is not, but it sets her off on a quest in search of her mother.

This is where it gets confusing, because each of the eight chapters is divided into sections headed “The Cottage”, “The Hunt” and “The River”. The novel jumps back and forth between different times – the ‘cottage’ sub-chapters refer to Gretel caring for her mother at her home (she found her). Sarah, the mother, either has dementia or a serious mental illness so the circumstances are challenging to say the least. The ‘hunt’ sections refer to Gretel’s search for her mother, and the ‘river’ sections look back on the past, to Gretel’s past, her childhood, and Sarah’s life before Gretel was born.

None of it proceeds in a linear fashion, which is fine, and normal for modern novels, but within the sub-stories (ie, cottage, river and hunt) there is jumping back and forth in time, so you need to be on your toes…which I was not, so I found it difficult to follow. Threaded through the ‘hunt’ and ‘river’ stories is the story of Margot/Marcus, a transgender child/adolescent who was the child of Roger and Laura, a couple Gretel meets in her search for her mother. Marcus was born Margot, and grew up as part of Roger and Laura’s family until one day he/she disappeared without explanation or further trace, a fact the couple have never come to terms with. There is a connection with Sarah that only becomes apparent much later.

I knew before I read the book that this novel is a re-telling of the Oedipus myth – in Greek mythology, Oedipus, you may know, inadvertently killed his own father and married his birth-mother, Jocasta, who then hanged herself when she discovered the truth. Even when you know the ending to the Oedipus story, it is difficult to see how Everything Under is going to end. It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I had the a-ha moment. In that sense it’s an extremely clever novel, brilliantly conceived, and I felt that perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention, but, in a way, that’s the point: I wasn’t paying enough attention because the book rather lost me as a reader. I found the narrative voice confused and confusing, the handling of past and present was not done as well as it might have been, in my view, and this was frustrating. There have been some comments from the Man Booker judges this year about editing, and how some of the books on the longlist could have been much the better for being shorter. This is clearly not the case with a shortish novel like this one, but I did feel that it needed a jolly good edit, a reordering, and I’m afraid I did think there was quite a bit of chaff (I still don’t understand the significance of the dog that Gretel finds!)

If you are interested in the Man Booker and in literature generally, I think this is an interesting read, to see how the modern novel is evolving, and to see how an ancient story might be handled in a modern setting. (I think a lot of popular soaps handle some of the same themes pretty successfully!) I found this novel somewhat laboured in its adherence to the myth and it sometimes got itself in knots. For me.

What has been your favourite/least favourite of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker?

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