Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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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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Man Booker Review #2 – “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Time for my second Man Booker shortlist review and of the three I have read so far, my favourite. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; the subject matter – a D-Day veteran suffering from PTSD – did not appeal particularly and when I saw the format – extended verse – I found my heart sinking slightly. That’s totally unfair, and I can in no way begin to justify that reaction other than to say I just love a good solid novel! I am delighted to say I was completely wrong, and I think it’s great when our prejudices and preferences are tested and we are pleasantly surprised.

The Long Take imgThe central character is Walker, a man from rural Nova Scotia, who fought with the Allied forces in the D-Day landings. He has seen and experienced terrible events, death and injury that most of us can barely even imagine, and he survived. After the end of the war, he goes back to the United States and finds himself living among the homeless in New York City. The book is divided into four sections: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953 each set in a different US city (though Los Angeles is the setting for both 1948 and 1953). As he reflects on his experiences, it becomes clear that it was impossible for him to return home to Canada. He reminisces about the quiet, gentle life he led there, where the rhythms of the seasons, the dependence on the harvests of the seas, and community events (such as village hall dances) dominate everyone’s existence. It’s as if the contrast between that life and the brutality he witnessed in the war means he fears contaminating the innocence of those he has left behind. He can never go back, never unsee what he has seen, and those he once loved will never be able to understand how he has been changed.

In New York City, Walker lives among the vulnerable and the dispossessed. He is already suffering the effects of his PTSD:

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car

                Backfiring, and he’s in France again’

                That taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

In 1948 Walker moves to Los Angeles and begins working on a city newspaper, initially writing film reviews, but then, as his profile grows and he earns respect among fellow journalists for his writing, he is given weightier projects. He persuades his Editor to let him do an extended investigation into homelessness. This takes him to San Francisco in 1951, and then back to LA in 1953. Walker is an observer, he seems to move on the periphery. He earns the trust of the cast of characters he befriends on the streets and his own personal trauma enables him to empathise with them:

                “People; just like him.

                Having given up the country for the city,

                Boredom for fear, the faces

                Gather here in these streets

                Like spectators in a dream.

                They wanted to be anonymous

                Not swallowed whole, not to disappear.”

The final part of the book is the most intensely drawn. Walker recalls the devastation of older parts of the city, the traditional buildings, to make way for modern concrete highways and car parks, fuelled by corruption in the city authorities and mafia money. In the process many of the itinerant population were made homeless from whatever meagre shelter they had created for themselves and effectively thrown onto the scrap heap. The account of the destruction of the soul of the city is juxtaposed with vivid and detailed descriptions of the war:

                “The side of a building fell like a tree.

                Then the rest of it just collapsed

                In on itself, immediately lost

                In a dense cloud of brick dust;

                The delay of the noise and shock waves.

                There was an army there, pulling down everything north of 1st.

                …

The sound of mortars like gravel on a metal slide; a running tear. Right next to me, young Benjamin took some shrapnel in the throat: his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me, fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping.”

What is fascinating and moving about the work is how Walker’s wartime experiences have made him more human, more empathic, whereas those who live oblivious are consumed by inhumanity, lack of feeling for others and, in the case of the authorities, cruelty. America is failing those in need in the pursuit of economic growth, greed and modernism.

I thought I would find the verse structure annoying, but it is beautiful, as is the economy of Robertson’s language. It perfectly suits the slightly ethereal, enigmatic central character and his own relatively silent presence in the communities in which he moves and verse provides a way of creating the vivid imagery of his wartime recollections.

I recommend this book highly. Don’t be put off if you are not used to reading verse, you will get used to it quickly. An amazing piece of work.

What is your favourite book on the Man Booker 2018 shortlist so far?

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Man Booker Review #1 – “Milkman” by Anna Burns

With just a few days to go now until the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize winner, my goal to read all six titles by the 16th is not going well! In fact, it’s my worst performance in several years; I have only just started on my third title. Milkman took me some time to read. It is quite long, but it is also written in a way that I found it nearly impossible to read at my usual pace. The lyrical prose style that means you have to read nearly every word in order to feel the full impact. The same is true of the second book I read, The Long Take by Robin Robertson, which is in fact an extended poem, although it is somewhat shorter. I’m now on Everything Under, also quite short, but I’m not really enjoying it so finding it quite hard going.

Milkman imgMilkman is set in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the central character and narrator is a young Catholic woman who finds herself drawn unwillingly into a relationship with a local paramilitary leader. It is not clear when the book is set, but I am guessing around the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Northern Ireland is known to be socially conservative, but the general sense of the place of women in society suggests to me that it dates back quite some time. Our central character (not named, I’ll come onto this) is from a large family. Her father is dead and she has several siblings, both older and younger. She is in a “maybe-relationship” with a local young man, who she has been seeing for about a year, though they have not made a commitment to one another. She is keen on running as a hobby and shares this with “third brother-in-law”. Whilst out running one day in a local park she finds that she is observed by a man in a white van. Over subsequent weeks he infiltrates her life by stealth, indicating that he expects her to have a relationship with him. He is known only as “Milkman”. It becomes clear to her that he is quite a powerful local figure in the paramilitary world, so not only does she have little choice about whether to become involved with him or not, it is made quite clear to her that as long as she goes along with him no harm will come to her “Maybe-boyfriend”.

The pace of the novel is slow as we follow her complex internal dialogue about what she should do, her fears, her accounts of how the community reacts to her activities and descriptions of what life is like in this environment of threat, surveillance, oppression and violence. At first I found this slow pace frustrating, especially as there were parts early on that I felt could have been edited down. However, by the end of the book I could see that the author was building her character’s world quite carefully. Some readers will no doubt be only too aware of what life was like at this time in Belfast, the segregation, the violence, the suspicion, but most of us will not, and the slow pace ultimately helped to draw me in and help me appreciate the character’s dilemma. The sense of how she had no choice, the sense of how any behaviour outside the accepted norms is considered beyond the pale. For example, our character has a habit of “Walking while reading”, which almost everyone around her considers unacceptable behaviour and comments upon and encourages her to stop doing. It is ironic that such innocuous behaviour is thought to be dangerous and provocative in a context where shooting, killing and blackmail are not.

None of the characters in the book are named, all are referred to by their relationship to the central character (eg Ma, wee sisters, first sister), or some other title. This is not as complicated as it sounds and I think the author is trying to make her characters representative of the lived experiences of so many ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that time. It is also indicative of the dehumanising effect of the Troubles, and in particular what our young woman went through. By removing any autonomy or choice from her (and it was not just Milkman doing this, it was the strictures of the community) there is a gradual destruction of her selfhood.

So, a long and complex read, but a brilliant novel from a very talented writer. The prose is sublime, the language is like nothing I’ve read before, except perhaps Lisa McInerney. It won’t appeal to those who like action and plot, but for an examination of the day to day life of a young person in Northern Ireland during that terrible period it is something quite special, and very enlightening. Recommended.

Have you managed to read any of the Man Booker shortlisted titles yet?

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Man Booker Prize 2018 – shortlist announced next week

Next Thursday (20 September) sees the announcement of the shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary prize in the UK and one of the most important on the international calendar too. The longlist was announced back in July and I have to confess that I was not familiar with any of the novels listed. The shortlist comprises the six best novels, as agreed by the judging panel from their longlist of thirteen books.

MB judges 2018
The Man Booker 2018 judging panel (L-R) – Val McDermid, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah (Chair), Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose

This is an important year for the Booker as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. There was a special award made earlier this year for the Golden Man Booker, the best work of fiction from all the winners. The judging panel was a stellar cast and each chose their favourite work, as follows:

Robert McCrum – In a Free State (1971) by VS Naipaul

Lemn Sissay – Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively

Kamila Shamsie – The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Simon Mayo – Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

Holly McNish – Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

The English patientThis shortlist was announced in May and the list was then put up for a public vote. My personal favourite of these was Wolf Hall. In 1983, the celebrate the 25th anniversary of the prize a “Booker of Bookers” contest was set up and three judges chose Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I probably agree with. It was good to see the vote open to the public this time rather than a small group of the literati, and the winner was The English Patient. I still remember reading that book for the first time the year it came out and then the wonderful movie with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, which itself went on to win several Oscars including Best Picture.

The panel of judges this year includes Val McDermid, so you can be sure that one of their criteria will be whether or not it’s a great story, something, I think it’s fair to say, literary fiction does not always consider of the highest importance. That was my feeling about last year’s winner, sadly.

For the last couple of years I have set myself the task of reading the shortlist before the winner is announced in October. Last year I managed five out of the six, and I STILL have not completed Paul Auster’s 4321 – I want to, honestly, but it’s SO LONG! I will do the same again this year, although I note that we seem to have one less week than usual between the shortlist and the announcement of the winner on 16 October – yikes, less than four weeks! Let’s hope there are no more monster tomes!

So look out for the shortlist announcement this Thursday; it will probably make many of the news bulletins.

Do you plan to read the Man Booker shortlist?

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