Nine years ago I was quite pleased to have read one of the Booker-shortlisted books before the list was announced. It was Arthur and George. (Actually, I think I read The Sense of an Ending before that won as well. Spooky Barnes). I’d also read the previous two years’ winners. Now that I’m mostly dependent for reading on what’s available in the library, I wanted to take in as many of this year’s shortlist as I could, again before the cheesy big night, because that would make it more Genuine. (I’m going to attempt the same with the Turner Prize). When I remembered Howard Jacobson’s J, loads of people had already reserved it, so there was no way it would arrive in time. Bah. Greater success with To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, which I remembered being ambivalently well reviewed, on Saturday Review. Some of it was hilarious, notably the arguments with Mrs Conroy, while other parts were too earnest and schematic. It does have a bad structure, in that it comes to an end rather unsatisfyingly. A sense of uncomprehending alienation is well conveyed. Definite semito-phile elements.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, was another Radio 3 special, in that they discussed it on Free Thinking a few months ago, which meant I had to postpone the podcast until I’d read it. Should give credit to Matthew Sweet here, who was careful to point out that the discussion would be unable to avoid spoilers. This was the first I’d heard of it, and after that I deliberately avoided reviews. It’s very poignant and the most affecting of the three candidate books I’ve encompassed. The structure is interesting, and she calls attention to it herself, which doesn’t at all ruin the trick. It strongly reminded me of a fairly recent film, whose identity I shouldn’t reveal, because the link in itself would constitute an involuntary reveal. Weirdly, there was a mention of frog dissection, just as I’d read about a few weeks before, carried out by Bazarov in Fathers and Sons.
Of those two actually on the shortlist, Karen Joy Fowler’s would be my choice. When I picked it, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World was on the longlist, and didn’t make it further. I read it anyway, finishing last week. A few people have reserved it after me, but they’ve been caught out because my local library is being “refurbished”, and I don’t have to return it until January. Of these three, it’s much the most work to read, in a good way. The decision to frame it as the compilation of a multiplicity of sources allows for the picture of the protagonist to be more ambivalent, rendering the political point more effective, I think. It’s one of the very few times I’ve read convincing descriptions of artworks in a novel.
None of these are the “bookies”‘ choice, so I doubt I’m picking the ultimate winner here. Still, I think a one-third sampling isn’t too discreditable.