Friday, 4 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #1: 'Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words'

In the first of two posts, I'm going to discuss what I think of the 2013 Booker shortlist before the winner is announced on the 15th October. Although there are, obviously, six shortlisted novels, I will only be discussing four of them. I've had a lot of difficulty getting hold of Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland or NoViolet Bulawyo's We Need New Names from the library, and I'm afraid neither novel has grabbed my attention sufficiently to warrant purchasing a copy. Having read neither of them, I may be completely wrong, but Lowland's plotline sounded cliched to me and, as for We Need New Names, I have a long-standing prejudice against child narrators with 'fresh' or 'original' or 'quirky' voices.

This post will be a bit of a rant, I fear, and perhaps my ranting has more to do with my own recent experiences of contemporary fiction than anything else. Despite some fantastic exceptions, such as Sisterland and Americanah, I've felt for a few months now that I've entered a reading slump. Like rubbish boyfriends, the new novels I begin promise much at the start but ultimately fail to deliver in depressingly similar ways. I wondered for a while if I was becoming jaded and bitter, deliberately seeking the worst in everything I read, but this seems unlikely when I genuinely greet good novels with joy. However, perhaps it is my fault, to an extent; perhaps I've been letting my reading tastes become too conservative and not trying enough that's different from what I usually read. The two novels I'm about to discuss certainly provide evidence of this. Although I always thought I enjoyed lyrical, timeless prose, with plotlines allowed to be slight and inconsequential compared to the importance of character, I hated both of these books, and they fit the bill perfectly.

Harvest has certainly been burdened by its publishers with a completely inappropriate thriller-esque cover and blurb. My expectations were raised far too high by the promises of a dramatic plot twist on the inside flap, and this isn't what this novel is about at all. I've never read anything by Jim Crace before, but I gather from the reviews that he has a very distinctive voice. And yes: Harvest is not only beautifully written, but bears comparison with some of the very best prose on nature that I've read, from Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places to Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines.

Unfortunately, this is not a series of elegant essays, but a novel, and although I initially felt willing to be immersed in Crace's timeless English village, I became increasingly frustrated by the meandering narrative. Harvest sounds like it should be great, and even having read the book, the numerous positive reviews in the press have me questioning why I didn't like it. A nameless English village, a narrator, Walter Thirsk, who is simultaneously an insider and an outsider, accusations of witchcraft, a violent response to the threat of enclosure... And yet, Crace seems to have mistaken the idea of not naming a specific time and a specific place for not having to have any historical fact in mind at all. I am usually the last person to criticise fiction on grounds of 'historical accuracy'; being an historian reminds you that it's devilishly difficult to nail down anything as anachronistic. However, when Crace introduces the threat of witch-burning into his supposedly English village, despite the fact that this would never have occurred in England, I felt hopelessly jarred. Crace also fails to negotiate the line between timelessness and history with sufficient skill; after mentions of puritans, we can tie our story down to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, but, due to the lack of precision in the rest of the narrative, the overall feel of the novel is that Crace simply hasn't bothered to do enough historical research. This also sits uncomfortably beside Crace's extensive knowledge of the natural world. Aside from all of this, however, I simply found the novel dull; nothing happens, and what does happen seems to have happened before in so many stories. Walter is not a sufficiently interesting individual to carry the slight plot, and I could not force myself through the last fifty pages.

Readers of this blog may remember that I didn't like Naomi Alderman's recent attempt at a retelling of the life of Christ, and will not be surprised that I didn't like this one either. This is a shame, because - like Crace - Colm Toibin is a wonderful writer, and I loved his Brooklyn. Nevertheless, I'm finding it hard to fathom why this even merited inclusion on the Booker shortlist; it's not a novel. There are moving passages in this first-person account in the voice of Mary, such as her early, fragmentary recollections of her son's crucifixion, where she cannot remember what they 'want' her to remember, and the vividly disturbing account of Christ's resurrection of Lazarus. However, much of it felt empty of content or emotion to me; like Harvest, it was just words, and most of them weren't necessary. I am also so tired of reviewers commenting that it is somehow 'daring' to challenge the biblical version of the life of Jesus, when it seems to me that it would be much more daring to do the opposite - and I'm not a Christian. I still await the novel-length version of the wonderful Carol Ann Duffy poem that I linked to in my review of Naomi Alderman's book. Instead, this seemed to be a very familiar tale of Mary's loneliness and disbelief; as a short story, it might have worked more effectively.

End of ranting; the second post on the Booker seems likely to be much more positive, I hope...


  1. I'm afraid I agree with you. Harvest was OK, but I didn't like the Toibin at all. I wonder if we'll agree on who should win?

  2. Hi Jackie, checked out your reviews of the rest of the shortlist and it looks like we're in agreement so far! I loved A Tale for the Time Being, and I'm reading The Luminaries at the moment and loving that as well (I'm a big fan of long C19th novels, so this was more my cup of tea...) It's a shame I haven't had a chance to read the other two nominees.