“Little Deaths” by Emma Flint

          He knew nothing about leaving your kids home alone or with a teenage sitter while you went out to work eight hours on your feet in a pair of heels that rubbed, serving drinks to assholes who thought they were buying the right to paw you with every round He knew nothing about leaving your sleeping children while you went to meet a man who would pay you for your company because your daughter needed shoes. He know nothing about sending your kids to bed on half-empty stomachs, trying to fill them up with water, adding a drop of whisky to make them sleep – because if you let them eat, there’d be nothing for breakfast and your dead-beat husband’s checks kept bouncing. 
          He knew nothing about coming home from a twelve-hour shift, having held the image of their faces in front of you the whole time, holding onto the sweet smell of their skin as you wiped vomit from your shoes, as you picked cigarette butts out of a half-full glass. And then stepping through the door and hearing the noise of them: the screams and shrieks and the endless demands, for food and for attention, and feeling that just the fact of them – their spilling, their pulling and grabbing and needing – made you want to hand the sitter all the money you had in your purse and beg her to stay. Or if there was no money, or no sitter, just walking out anyway because you were so damn tired, and you just needed a little time alone. A little peace. 
         This man had no idea about any of this. None of these men did. They got paid men’s wages and they had wives to deal with the noise and the mess, with Jimmy’s problems at school, with little Susie who wouldn’t eat her vegetables, with the baby who just wouldn’t stop crying.
          They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers.

27845924Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list nominee “Little Deaths” is part crime novel, part character study. Ruth Malone is a young mother working as a cocktail waitress in 1960s Queens. Ruth is icy, composed, plastic. While the reader sees the turmoil of her life – excessive drinking, desperate affairs with strange men, maternal fatigue – Ruth shows nothing to the outside world. Wearing revealing clothes and always putting on her face before facing the day, Ruth is desperate to be looked at, terrified of ever being seen. Her plastic veneer by which she is judged – perfect makeup and hair, no emotion – is her armor against a world to which she doesn’t really belong.

“Little Deaths” is the story, set in flashbacks, of Ruth’s undoing. From the opening lines, we are told that she is now an inmate, though her crime is only later revealed and the truth of that crime is delivered only at the book’s end.

 “On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before. Then: she rarely slept neat in a nightgown, pillows plumped, face shining with cold cream. She sometimes woke in a rumpled bed with a snoring figure beside her; more often she woke alone on the sofa with near-empty bottles and near-full ashtrays, her skin clogged with stale smoke and yesterday’s makeup, her body tender, her mind empty. She would sit up, wincing, aware of the ache in her neck and of the sad, sour taste in her mouth. Now she wakes, not with the thickness of a headache or the softness of a blurred night behind her, but with forced clarity. Her days begin with a bell, with harsh voices, clanging metal, yelling. With the throat-scarping smells of bleach and urine. There’s no room in these mornings for memories.”

Ruth is a woman without agency, looking for solace in a bottle and a man – any man. That  trait, alone, makes her a tough character to like. Her struggles with motherhood, marriage, and misogyny are sympathetic and relatable on their surface, but Ruth herself just wasn’t. “Little Deaths” is full of flat characters, and though Ruth’s stoicism is key to the novel’s plot and premise, it is delivered to such an extreme that it left me cold and unengaged. The only sympathetic characters are a flash in the narrative, come and gone in short shrift, literal victims to the plot. Flint has her protagonist playing a type – the ice queen who, we are told, has unknown depths. But if, through the entirety of the novel, those depths remain unknown and unbelievable, as they did here, what remains is a fairly hollow and forgettable story.

 

My Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Hopefuls

Tomorrow, April 3rd, marks the announcement of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist. A mere 26 days after the longlist of 16 acclaimed works by women was announced, the nominees for this prestigious prize will be reduced to 6. I have made it through 14 of the 16 longlisters, with mixed impressions of the choices and a renewed confidence and excitement about the future of women’s writing. Were it up to me, these are the 6 nominees which I believe belong on the shortlist. Tomorrow will tell how my tastes compare to the judges panel.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry7679118-3x4-700x933
“The Essex Serpent” is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Perry writes a novel set 125 years ago that is alive and resonant today, a tale beautifully knotted like a centuries-old tree. Perry’s twists and turns manage to carry a multiplicity of timeless themes. Her story is about being true to one’s self, about the essential drive to find one’s place in this world. It is also about the power of myth, the enduring nature of love, and the eternal battle between the haves and the have-nots. This was one of the best books I read last year and I was thrilled at its appearance on the Baileys List.

9781783782666Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an elegantly crafted work which details the struggles and loves of three generations of a family in revolutionary China. Using gentle, artistic strokes which evoke the Chinese calligraphy she so often invokes, Thien gives shape and substance to life under Mao, through the cultural revolution, and after the atrocities in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing is spectacular. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is breathtaking and memorable and belongs on the Baileys Short List.

The Power by Naomi Alderman41RUBuZRhZL
Naomi Alderman’s electrifying novel “The Power” is framed as a book within a book; it is an historical novel from thousands of years in the future. In a time ill-defined but not to distant from now, girls all over the world begin to discover that they have a power, an electrical charge from within which they can nurture and control to enormous effect. Slowly, powerfully, girls and women awaken their inner power and begin to resist the patriarchies which have dominated the world since time immemorial. Alderman’s dystopian vision is like quicksilver, mesmerizing and empowering, horrifying and disheartening. She turns the world on its head with such confidence and courage, taking the “what ifs” to their very extreme. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

51l9Yrs+SyLMidwinter by Fiona Melrose
Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter” is aptly named. The titular characters are Landyn and Vale Midwinter, a father and son in rural Suffolk. But Midwinter isn’t just the surname of the main characters; it is the mood, the ambiance of the book. “Midwinter” is deeply quiet, starkly still like a midwinter’s day in a snow-filled wood. “Midwinter” is something special and unique, a pastoral look at family, love, guilt, and manhood, all from an eerily insider view that is, at least at some level, brilliantly contrived.  Melrose writes with beautiful simplicity; her story is bucolic but not naive. Reading “Midwinter” is like a restorative stay in a quiet, wooded cabin. Resplendent and refined.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill920x920
Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside. Pierrot, on the other hand, is a drifter, a musician, and a bit of a cad. A naturally gifted pianist, Pierrot fumbles through life, ad libbing and vamping and, often, following the tides. “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is an odyssey; it rends Rose and Pierrot apart and then painstakingly traces their labyrinthian paths back to one another. It is deeply dark and in some ways unrelentingly cynical, though the light of true love always flickers around the corner. It is full of gorgeously biting social commentary, particularly about the roles and rigors of women. What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Heather O’Neill engages all of the readers’ senses through some of the most ingenious and original turns of simile I’ve ever encountered. She is the Queen of the Simile and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a treasure trove.

31349579Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
“Stay with Me” is story of trust and deception, of deeply intertwined lives and the desperate love of motherhood. Yejide is a strong Nigerian woman, deeply in love with her husband Akin and desperate to become a mother. Motherhood is the ultimate goal and, to some, the soul purpose of being a woman. Through the eyes of Yejide and Akin, the reader is shown the heights and depths of a marriage. We see that both Yejide and Akin, in their desperation to cling together, stretch and bend and mar the truth, ultimately driving a wedge between them that seems too great to overcome. Aboyami Adebayo’s debut is brilliant. In it, Adebayo spins formidably complex emotional threads with clarity and simplicity. Her characters are beguiling and their heartaches are painfully real.

“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood

“That devious, twisted bastard, Tony, is Felix’s own fault. Or mostly his fault. Over the past twelve years, he’s often blamed himself. He gave Tony too much scope, he didn’t supervise, he didn’t look over Tony’s nattily suited, padded, pinstriped shoulder. He didn’t pick up on the clues, as anyone with half a brain and two ears might have done. Worse: he’d trusted the evil-hearted, social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker.” 

Felix Phillips is a giant (at least in his own mind) of theater. The reigning artistic director of a hag_seed_5_17small town acting company, Felix is unceremoniously, traitorously ousted from his position by his protege, Tony, with a perfunctory “heart-felt thanks” and a security escort to his car.

“Creativity. Talent. The two most overused words in the business, Felix thought bitterly. And the three most useless things in the world: a priest’s cock, a nun’s tits, and a heart-felt vote of thanks.”

Felix finds himself untethered and persecuted. His narcissistic self pity is darkly comical. In his unwavering self-obsession, he ruminates on past wrongs done to him.

“His wife, Nadia, was the first to leave him, barely a year after their marriage….He was just discovering her virtues, just getting to really know her, when she’d died of a galloping staph infection right after childbirth.”

His wife’s tragic death was her leaving him.

As Felix flounders and wallows, spending years as a hermit in an abandoned cabin, he realizes – eureka – that he needs direction. “He required a focus, a purpose. He gave this much thought while sitting in his deck chair. Eventually he concluded that there were two things left for him – two projects that could still hold satisfaction.” These seedling projects are to finally stage his rendition of the Tempest, which was cruelly wrested from him in his ouster, and to exact revenge. Hijinks and drama inevitably ensue.

Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed” is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which acclaimed modern authors retell Shakespearean classics. “Hag-Seed” is itself a retelling of the Tempest, and cleverly includes the play within the novel’s retelling – a narrative matryoshka doll, a play within a play. It is conceptually quite clever and is deftly written, with frequent moments of pithy humor and caustic wit.

I am undeniably a Margaret Atwood fan and find her works dark, original, and brilliant. Somehow, however, “Hag-Seed” lacks the emotion and the weight of most Atwood works. This book feels more superficial and polished, where her depth and grit are usually so prominent. It could be the atypical focus on writing male voices, the restrictions of working within an existing story framework, or perhaps the pressures of remaking Shakespeare, although her source material and her concept are robust. To me, there was just something lacking in the execution.”Hag-Seed” didn’t channel Atwood’s voice and passion, or at least it didn’t communicate them to me. In the end, this book read more like a movie script than an engaging novel, like it needed another medium to give it life. Not what I’ve come to expect from Atwood and, in my mind, not quite up to par for the Women’s Prize short list.

 

 

 

“The Dark Circle” by Linda Grant

Linda Grant, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “When I Lived in Modern 31830414Times”, is once again among those nominated for this esteemed prize, this time for her 2016 novel “The Dark Circle.” “The Dark Circle” tells the story of twins Lenny and Miriam, 19-year-olds who are inseparably, perhaps disturbingly, close. Lenny and Miriam are just beginning to find their way in the world of adults in post-WWII London. The two are scrappy, feisty, and full of life, fiercely devoted to one another and hopeful for their futures.

“[Lenny] only knew people who carried sacks of anxiety and neuroses and cynicism on their backs. Miriam was an outgoing extrovert but she still regarded the world as a place that needed to be tackled like a prize-fighter with two fists raised.”

Still living at home – and in fact sharing a room – the twins are under the heavy-handed, not always legitimate, influence and protection of their Uncle Manny, who feels the need to compensate for their parents.

“[Their] poor dad had done nothing for [them] except die before he could do much damage toiling over his religious books night and day in his junk shop in Stepney, and [their] mother was neither use nor ornament.”

When both Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with tuberculosis, it is Uncle Manny who arranges for them to go to a countryside sanatorium for “the rest cure”, where they are instructed to surrender and be patient – no small task to these youngsters eager for life and adventure.

“Lenny’s main emotion since he’d been at the sanatorium was extreme boredom. Fear had subsided a while ago after the rough stabbing at his chest and the collapse of his lung. The tedium of days had numbed any sense of terror.”

In the ways of some isolated, manufactured collectives, the patients at the sanatorium form an odd community. Despite coming from extremely different circumstances and with little in common in the outside the world, they form deep connections to one another. Their time in the sanatorium – the months and even years of isolation and under-stimulation which make up the the majority of the book – marks them in an indelible way. They form friendships and loyalties that will span their lifetimes.

In a great sense, “The Dark Circle” is about extreme boredom, about extreme circumstances, and about the way these two forces can change one’s life forever. The characters are quixotic and charming, if not totally believable or fully formed. The story itself is fine and goes along fairly compellingly, but it has no real hook nor intrigue to keep a reader fully engaged. The final part of the book, in particular, is rather paltry. All of the story lines are tied up a little too neatly, making the ending shallow and cloying and the novel as a whole disappointing and forgettable. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the book, there is nothing outstanding, either, that merits its place among such an elite selection of extraordinary fiction.

 

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill

“There is no love without fury. There is no beauty without ugliness.”

920x920Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Raised in a loveless, colorless world, Rose and Pierrot both shine. O’Neill has described them as “Edward Gorey drawings, where their tragedies are poems”.  They are loved by all of the children in the orphanage and destined for one another. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside.

“Sister Eloise didn’t like how other girls paid attention to [Rose]. She was adored for being creative and witty, which was not right, in the nun’s estimation – she strongly believed that girls should be admired only for being good. She hated that Rose was trying to better herself intellectually, something that a girl had no business doing.”

As she get older, her enigmatic personality only grows.

“She certainly seemed crazy. But she simultaneously made them think that there was nothing in the world wrong with being a crazy girl. And that maybe the world needed a couple more crazy girls.”

Rose believes herself to be, at heart, a clown. Not a silly, birthday party character, but a clown in the maudlin, theatrical way of Cirque du Soleil. She sees the world through surrealist glasses, her sense of life and morality shaped by some internal force and oblivious to external mores.

“‘I think clowns feel the consequences of things more than other people do,’ said Rose. ‘We clowns are larger than life. We hold a microscope up to things. I think if you want to be a better artist, you have to be a better person. How else would you be able to express innocence – which is what every clown is after?'”

Pierrot, on the other hand, is a drifter, a musician, and a bit of a cad. A naturally gifted pianist, Pierrot fumbles through life, ad libbing and vamping and, often, following the tides. He has little agency, it seems. To those he meets as a young adult, he is clearly a no-account, prone to excess and laziness.

“The girls who worked as servants at the house or in the neighborhood knew that Pierrot was a fool. They knew that if they hooked up with him, they would be miserable and looking after their children on their own and living off charity for the rest of their lives….Pierrot didn’t impress them. They didn’t think he had the sophisticated language of an intellectual. They thought he had the mellifluous tongue of a hustler.”

But Rose is devoted to him, and Pierrot’s one constant is his love for Rose. Since they were young children, they have been inextricably bound to one another. They are loyal in their hearts and constant in the love they hold for one another, even when separated by geography and other love interests for years on end.

“Perhaps it might be best to let her go. But thinking and obsessing about her allowed him to block out any other memory of the orphanage. It was as though she were the only thing that had ever happened in his childhood. The thought of her climbed and twisted around each of this thoughts like a rosebush.”

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is an odyssey; it rends Rose and Pierrot apart and then painstakingly traces their labyrinthian paths back to one another. It is deeply dark and in some ways unrelentingly cynical, though the light of true love always flickers around the corner. It is full of gorgeously biting social commentary, particularly about the roles and rigors of women. To the nuns running the orphanage and, likely, to the neighborhoods at large, it is clear who is at fault for all of these abandoned children.

“These girls had thrown their whole lives away just to have five lovely minutes on a back staircase. Now, with strangers living in their bellies, they had been sent into hiding by their parents, while the young fathers went about their business, riding bicycles and whistling in the bathtub. That’s what this building had been established for. Out of a great kindness for these miserable wenches.”

To the gangsters and toughs, women are an accessory, a commodity that indicates your worth.

“You were contractually, legally bound to wives. They often changed their personality and physical appearance after having children. You never quite knew who you were marrying when you got married. Sometimes your wife turned out to be a dud, and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it. She might have looked from the outside like somebody attractive and easygoing but then became ugly. But a girlfriend was a different matter because she was someone you could update and change. She reflected the type of girl you could get on that day, at that hour. Everyone always knew that mistresses were only interested in your wealth and status, so they were your price tag, so to speak. They were like flashy cars, or incredibly expensive suits.”

And to the society as a whole, women are clearly ‘helpmeets’, not heroines.

“Everyone kept trying to make it clear to Rose that nobody really cared about what a girl had to say. She wasn’t supposed to have radical and clever ideas. She was just supposed to try to vaguely follow what men were on about. They were supposed to bounce ideas off her as if they were playing racquetball. It was a more or less pleasant way of speaking to one’s self. It was important to be a little bit stupid as a woman. It was important not to feel proud of yourself.”

O’Neill has Rose charging through all of these stereotypes, shattering all expectations and forging her own path.

What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs of similes strung delicately together, each a gem attractive in its own right and stunning when carefully curated with its companions. If you were averse to figurative language and were wont to excise all of this work’s similes, you would likely cut the book by half. But you would also lose its soul. The figurative language isn’t decorative; it isn’t ancillary. It IS this book. Heather O’Neill engages all of the readers’ senses through some of the most ingenious and original turns of simile I’ve ever encountered. She is the Queen of the Simile and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a treasure trove. I will leave you with just a small sampling of that brilliance.


O’Neill’s Simile Garden

  • “Colors began appearing everywhere on what had previously been a white page. The blossoms were like underwear blown  off the laundry lines. The orchids hung over the cast-iron gates like girls in just their petticoats yelling at the postman for a letter. And they continued to tour into the fall, when all the leaves were the colorful candy wrappers, leftover from the very sweet days of summer.”
  • “All the bruises blooming like violets. All the bruises like storm clouds. The little beads of sweat like raindrops on her nose. All her bruises spreading out like the tip of a pen touching a wet cloth.”
  • “The mop in the bucket made the sound of a pig rooting for truffles.”
  • “The soft sound of the rain on the rooftop sounded like young girls sneaking off in stockings to elope.”
  • “He kept knocking his head against the wall as though it were a boiled egg whose shell he wanted to crack open.”
  • “[The letter] lay at the bottom of the basket like butterflies that had died during a sudden frost.”
  • “As it grew late into the night, the flowers dropped forward on their stems, like girls who had fallen asleep on a church pew.”
  • “The flowers looked all tousled, like children who had been awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night.”
  • “The pinecones lay on the grass around them, like cigar butts the gods had discarded.”
  • “When the tailor was done, there was a pile of measuring tape on the ground as if a mummy had just performed a striptease.”
  • “When he lit up the thin cigarette, it made a slight sizzling noise, like the sound of a writer’s manuscript being tossed into the fire.”

“Midwinter” by Fiona Melrose

Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter”, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for 51l9Yrs+SyLFiction, is aptly named. The titular characters are Landyn and Vale Midwinter, a father and son in rural Suffolk. But Midwinter isn’t just the surname of the main characters; it is the mood, the ambiance of the book. “Midwinter” is deeply quiet, starkly still like a midwinter’s day in a snow-filled wood.

Vale Midwinter is a twenty-year-old man living with his widowed father on their family homestead, roiling and seething in a private world of angst and anger. More than ten years after his mother’s death, Vale still has pent-up rage and blame for his father and the responsibility Vale places on him for his mother’s murder.

“Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff.”

Vale’s life-long solace, his way of burning off steam, is to disappear on long walks through the hills and vales of his family’s land. Even as a young boy, his parents quickly recognize the importance of allowing Vale this freedom to disappear, to walk off his anger. It is the only way Vale seems able to cope with emotions and inner turmoil, the only time he feels truly free.

“Sometimes when I got back in the house after being out and free, I felt the air was too heavy and the rooms too small for breathing. Out in the fields, you could walk until your legs stopped caring where they took you. Inside there is always something to bump into. Pa doesn’t seem to mind, but then he’s much more quiet in himself.”

Landyn, in truth, does seem to be more quiet in himself. Though he alludes to instances of past fury, is an exceptionally calm, sturdy, and gentle man. His quietude and isolation don’t at all connote an aloofness nor a lack of empathy, however. He is deeply empathic and insightful, able to see and respect the soul and hurt of animals and people alike. When Vale and his best friend Tom are endangered by their own drunken stupidity and bravado, it is Landyn, as always, who sees through the mess of guilt and hurt and quietly implores Vale to come correct.

“‘Son, you need to go to Tom. I know I have no place telling you what to do. I know you won’t ever trust me to know right from wrong and this way from that ever again. If that’s how it is then that’s how it is. But listen to me when I say, that boy needs you now. For everything that’s going on in you there’s as much going on in him. He’s your brother, son. He is that. If you think I’m a rotten old arse of a father then you need to look at the one he’s got and know that however lonely you are he’s as much and more.'”

The introvertedness, the quietude and gentle nature, the unequivocal masculinity of “Midwinter”, all at the hands of a deeply talented female writer, are breathtaking.”Midwinter” is something special and unique, a pastoral look at family, love, guilt, and manhood, all from an eerily insider view that is, at least at some level, brilliantly contrived.  Melrose writes with beautiful simplicity; her story is bucolic but not naive. Reading “Midwinter” is like a restorative stay in a quiet, wooded cabin. Resplendent and refined.

The Best of the Booker Prize Winners

I’ve never met Karen except through her blog BookerTalk. Her home is in Wales, UK. Mine is in Massachusetts, USA. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners. Which of these are our favorites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.

Joslyn @ Chronic Bibliophilia 
DSC_0401Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.

To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read.

Karen @BookerTalk.com
BookerTalkI’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve  been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.

Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners
Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.

unnamed-3“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel
In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.

“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme
1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping

“Possession” by A.S. Byatt
The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.

Karen’s Reaction to Joslyn’s Choices
It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s  currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.

Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners

Favourite top 3 Booker winners copy

“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel
The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by  showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side. It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan
Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014

“The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje
This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.

Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s Choices
I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his “In the Skin of a Lion”, which explores many of the same themes. Where “The English Patient” fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.

What do you think of our choices?

If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?

About Chronic Bibliophilia
For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

About BookerTalk
I love talking about books and what I’m reading. Blogging for me is the next best thing to talking with friends and relatives about the book I just read and what authors I want to explore next. Through my BookerTalk blog I get to chat with people across the world who share my love of reading. It started as a way to capture my thoughts on each of the Booker winners I read. But as my reading interests have broadened so has the blog. It now includes reviews on prize winners and literary classics but also on novels in translation from authors around the globe. Do come and visit me www.bookertalk.com and lets get chatting….