austerlitzAusterlitz is the second novel I’ve read by W. G. Sebald. Like The Emigrants, it’s difficult to write about, partly because the genre is difficult to pin down. Is it documentary or fiction? Is it about architecture or is it a travelogue or is it a prose poem? It is also weirdly, circuitously moving; the sort of book (if this can be called a sort of book and not sui generis) that gets around behind you and kidnaps you into grief.

The book is about a strange, lonely man the author knows, named Austerlitz. They meet here and there, by chance, in various buildings in Europe where Austerlitz is collecting historical photographs of architecture and doing obscure research. We eavesdrop on their conversations — or, rather, on Austerlitz’s monologues. These are long discourses that begin with architecture and the way it represents tyranny or oppression (the description of the French Bibliotheque Nationale as a place that actively discourages readers is not just breathtaking, it’s spot-on.) These discussions become more intimate, and move on to the passage of time, the existential void of memory, and the deep grief of the shadow of the Holocaust.

We hear first about Austerlitz’s childhood in Wales, as the adopted son of a slightly-mad preacher. The vanished past is mysteriously present here, in the form of a town that was drowned at the bottom of a lake when a dam was completed:

At this one moment on the Vyrnwy dam when, intentionally or unintentionally, he allowed me a glimpse into his clerical heart, I felt for him so much that he, the righteous man, seemed to me like the only survivor of the deluge which had destroyed Llanwddyn, while I imagined all the others — his parents, his brothers and sisters, his relations, their neighbors, all the other villagers — still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and walking along the road, but unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide…. At night, before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water, and like the poor souls of Vrynwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me, and see the reflection, broken by ripples, of the stone tower standing in such fearsome isolation on the wooded bank.

Of course, by now we have begun to understand what it takes Austerlitz all his life and immeasurable despair to grasp: he is, indeed, submerged in dark water. He is carrying around a terrible secret, but for many years he doesn’t know what it is, because his memories are missing. He’s subject to illness, to fear, to blindness and despair, until chance cracks something open in his mind. Little by little, the memories return, and he discovers that indeed he is the only survivor of the deluge: he was part of the Kindertransport, sent to Wales as a tiny boy from Czechoslovakia for safety. Austerlitz the architectural research geek becomes a man obsessed with his parents, uncovering the history of the Jews of Prague, visiting Terezin, standing in the cemetery, hearing trains in a terrible new way.

The vision of the drowned Welsh village — the entire family, the neighbors, the whole village gone, unable to speak, but still witnessing — is typical of Sebald’s oblique approach to the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s not so much a way of talking about it as a way of making us think about how we can’t understand it. His style is dreamlike and a little formal, and there are profound silences in the text. (“That evening in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel Austerlitz also told me that there was no wireless set or newspaper in the manse in Bala. I don’t know that Elias and his wife, Gwendolyn, ever mentioned the fighting on the continent of Europe, he said. I couldn’t imagine any world outside Wales.”) The gradual erosion of these silences — when the drowned dead begin to speak — is both triumph and deep sorrow.

I mentioned earlier that the genre of these books is difficult to pin down, in some ways. As in The Emigrants, this book contains poorly-reproduced black-and-white photographs and drawings that more or less accompany the text, which give it simultaneously a feeling of documentary evidence and of theater props: crumbly relics from some age long past. (Apparently Sebald himself called it “documentary fiction,” which, okay, that’s as good as I’m going to get.) As we move deeper into Austerlitz’s reminiscences, his sentences grow longer and more hypnotic, punctuated by commas. I realized at one point that I’d just read a sentence that was eight pages long. (Let that sink in for a moment.) Eff off, Hemingway nuts.

Austerlitz is a beautiful, slow, melancholy novel. It’s a fiction of memory and of time, complex without being severe. In a line near the end of the book, Austerlitz is describing the Jewish cemetery near his house in London:

In the bright spring light shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.

Reading Austerlitz is like entering this kind of fairy tale: bright and dark with hidden meaning, drawn from another culture and time, mysteriously grown old behind the poisonous briars. And beautiful, beautiful.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Brandons

brandonsThis is the sixth of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, and it is just possible that it’s the most charming one yet. The novel centers around the unbelievably alluring (if rather scatterbrained) Mrs. Brandon and her two sensible children, Francis and Delia. To this contented family we add the high entertainment factor of Mrs. Brandon’s many admirers: among them, Mr. Miller, the vicar; and Hilary Grant, Mr. Miller’s pupil, who is Francis’s age. Hilary, in particular, has fallen violently in love with Mrs. Brandon the moment he saw her, and his earnest passion (complete with poetry) is extremely funny:

…his incoherent and jumbled wish had been entirely a prayer to be allowed to die some violent and heroic death while saving Mrs. Brandon from something or somebody, to have her holding his chill hand, and perhaps letting her cheek rest for a moment against his as his gallant spirit fled, all with a kind of unspoken understanding that he should not really be hurt and should somehow go on living very comfortably in spite of being heroically dead.

(To this sort of thing, Francis and Delia merely shake their heads. They are accustomed to their mother’s “hopeless cases.”)

Because Thirkell models herself on Trollope, though, behind this flamboyant background, a real love story is taking place. This one is between Mr. Miller and Miss Morris, companion to the now deceased Miss Brandon (an elderly relative of the Brandons.) The two had known each other forty years earlier, when Mr. Miller lived with Miss Morris’s father as he studied to become a priest. Ideological differences separated the two men, and Miss Morris found it difficult to forgive the young Mr. Miller for causing her father pain. But time has made it possible for these two to be gentle to each other, and to themselves, and watching them come back together is an absolute joy.

This isn’t a complicated book. There’s a death and an inheritance, people falling in and out of love, an engagement or two, and a glorious church fete (complete with Laura and Tony Morland, two of my favorite characters!) The entire thing is carried along on the river of Thirkell’s words, a sort of low, gentle, hilarious stream. If you’ve been feeling tired or stressed or worried, this is the sort of book that might really rest you, and I can’t say fairer than that. Thirkell wrote it in 1939, on the brink of war, knowing that this was the last peaceful English summer for some time, and it brims with contentment. Read it and garner some for yourself.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 14 Comments

Always a Body to Trade

always-a-body-to-tradeIt was very interesting to read K.C. Constantine’s sixth installment of the Mario Balzic series of mysteries, Always a Body to Trade. It was written in 1983 — more than 30 years ag0 — and it takes place in Rocksburg, a small town in rural, rustbelt Pennsylvania. In this novel, Balzic — sensible, generous, cynical, unarmed Chief of Police — isn’t having a good time. First, he’s faced with the ugly execution-style murder of a Jane Doe. Next, there are two burglaries of identical apartments, which he believes are linked to the drug trade, and possibly to the murder as well. And finally (and maybe worst of all), there’s a new mayor in Rocksburg, a naive, hysterical, inexperienced, overbearing clod with a strong taste for the limelight. Balzic has not only to solve crimes, but to teach his new boss the facts of police work.

It’s an impossible task, of course. This is Balzic’s first real drug case, and he doesn’t know much about it. There are corrupt narcotics officers involved (something the mayor loses his mind over.) Worst (or best) of all, the Reverend Rutherford Rufee, African-American pastor by day and crimelord by night, is Balzic’s best hope for solving the case, but Rufee has an agenda of his own that’s not clear to Balzic at all. As Rufee provides one colorful informant after another, the threads of the case draw tighter, and the mayor’s education in the ways of this job gets grimly, hilariously sophisticated.

The relationship between Balzic and Rufee is the most interesting in the novel. Balzic is a decent, solid man who would never consider himself racist, and there are small vignettes in the novel that show him enjoying black culture and being considerate and polite to individual African-Americans. (This despite the fact that he uses the n-word on a regular basis.) Rufee, however, is a flamboyant criminal who openly considers himself Balzic’s equal, and the tension in the dialogue between them is thick and palpable. In the end, it becomes clear that Rufee has misled Balzic, not for a criminal purpose — their goals overlap — but because Rufee understands that a white society will not serve a black population unless given a reason that’s important to the white people. And Balzic has to admit it, and it hurts. For a detective novel from 1983, this is intense stuff.

I’ve been recommending this series for a couple of years now, and these books just keep getting better. The dialogue is spot-on, and the atmosphere of Rocksburg is as familiar in its frustrations as it is in its tenderness and its humor. Try out Mario Balzic, see what you think.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Mr. Fox

mr foxMr. Fox does not know what to do with the women in his books. Or, rather, he knows of only one thing to do with them. He kills them. Roberta saws off her hand and foot and bleeds to death at a church altar. Louise is mistaken for her traitorous brother and shot. And Mrs. McGuire hangs herself because she’s afraid of her husband’s reaction when she burns dinner. But Mary Foxe is out to change all that. Mary, an imaginary assistant and a sort of muse, has decided he’s a serial killer, and she’s going to make him do better.

Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe start writing each other stories—sometimes, in fact, writing each other into stories—and, through the stories, they explore the ways men use women and writers use characters. Mr. Fox has a hard time changing his killing ways, and Mary scolds him for it:

What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, “yes, he is talking about things that really happen,” and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are man, just bizarre—but you offer them with such confidence. It was barbecue she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because “nothing is more poetic than the death if a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.

This is a book about how stories matter, about how the stories we tell shape our world. Mary Foxe wants Mr. Fox to tell better stories, and by pushing him to do so, she pushes him toward becoming a better man. The early stories, darkly comic and violent, become richer, as the characters try to understand each other, rather than slashing into each other. A complication emerges when Mr. Fox’s wife, Daphne, starts to appear in the stories and to intervene in the relationship between Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe.

Helen Oyeyemi’s books are as much about atmosphere as they are about story. I’ve never been quite sure about everything that’s happening in any of her books, and this one was no different. For example, it’s not always clear which stories were by Mr. Fox and which were by Mary Foxe, although perhaps it doesn’t matter, since it’s all Mr. Fox (sort of). Some of the stories themselves were good on their own, but what I really liked about this book was the way the stories grow and eventually intertwine with life. The writers make the stories and the stories make the writers. And so they grow together, each in their own way.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

The Glorious Heresies


After finishing the Booker longlist, I decided to try a book that perhaps should have been on the longlist, so I turned to Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, winner of the 2016 Bailey’s Prize. It turns out that it was published too early for the 2016 Booker, but it is the kind of book I like to see on the Booker list, and reading it restored my confidence in literary fiction—and in my ability to enjoy literary fiction.

The novel is set in Cork, among violent criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes at various stages of life. It opens with a woman named Maureen killing an intruder in her home with a scapular. This death sets in motion a chain of events whose consequences last for years. Maureen calls her son, crime boss Jimmy Phelan, to do something about the body. Jimmy gets a man named Tony to help. Tony’s son, 15-year-old Ryan, is dealing drugs in a small way and falling in love with a classmate, Karine, in a big way. Tony and Ryan’s neighbor, Tara Duane, was a notorious madam but now hands out sandwiches to people on the street. One of those people is Georgie, a prostitute and addict and girlfriend of Robbie. Robbie is dead on the floor of Maureen’s house, a former brothel. He’d gone there looking for Georgie’s treasured scapular, a memento of her past that she lost when the brothel was turned into a home.

Got all that?

The tangled relationships are fitting for a novel where just about everyone feels entangled in a system they can’t escape. Most of these people do not have enough money or resources to control their destiny to any great degree. And those who do have it, like Karine, who appears to come from a well-off family, find themselves tied up by love. McInerney depicts their situations with compassion and moments of dark humor. (The humor only comes in occasional flashes. The book overall is not as funny as I expected from the handful of reviews I’d seen.)

One of the things that interested me in the book is its depiction of pregnancy and motherhood. Three women in the book, one in the past and two in the present, must deal with unexpected and unplanned pregnancies. Even though the Magdalen laundries were long closed for two or these women, that history casts a shadow, and Maureen’s memory of her own separation from her son Jimmy is a reminder of how things used to be. And what happens to the young mothers of the present raises questions about how much things have actually changed. How much choice do women have when they’re young or poor or just plain unprepared?

I was also especially appreciative of how a book that’s so gritty was also filled with moments of softness and delight. There are some beautifully perfectly rendered sex scenes, and the development of Ryan and Karine’s relationship is at times genuinely sweet, with much of the tension of the novel being in the adult reader’s knowledge that it can hardly stay that way. And Maureen’s fury, inappropriate as it may be at time, feels right, given the circumstances, and, in a way, it’s the thing that provides the most hope for these characters. That makes me like her all the more.

I received an e-galley of this novel for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 8 Comments

The WoMan Booker Shadow Panel Shortlist

Frances, Meredith, Nicole, Rebecca, and I have put our heads together and come up with a shared shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. I think it’s safe to say that few of us were particularly pleased with the longlist. Most of us struggled to come up with six books we really wanted to include. But we had different favorites, and I believe all of those favorites are represented here.

In alphabetical order:

  1. All That Man Is by David Szalay
  2. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  3. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  4. The Many by Wyl Menmuir
  5. The North Water by Ian McGuire
  6. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

As you can see, this doesn’t match my personal list, but that’s okay. In fact, it’s pretty great because it shows how subjective and complex the whole exercise of choosing a prize list is. Everyone has different ideas of what makes a book great and how well a particular book achieves those criteria. It’s fun to hash that out with other smart readers.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

My Man Booker Shortlist

Those of you who’ve followed my reading of the Man Booker longlist this year know that I’ve been unimpressed with the offerings. The judges this year seem to value experimentation over storytelling and mistake darkness for daring. Even though most of the books were under 500 pages, they felt long, and almost all of them seemed to be trying too hard.

So with all that said, I had a lot of trouble assembling my shortlist. There were only two books that I felt I’d want to include in just about any year, and even those two weren’t books likely to become firm favorites. I’ve found myself thinking wistfully of the 2009 Booker list, which featured Brooklyn, The Children’s Book, The Little Stranger, Summertime, and Wolf Hall. Even the one book I read from that list and disliked (The Glass Room) was more interesting and engaging than most of the books on this list.

(I should note here that I did not receive The Schooldays of Jesus in time to read it before assembling my longlist or weighing in on what the Shadow WoMan Booker’s choice should be. I liked both of the books I’ve previously read by Coetzee, and the subject matter of this book could make it a top pick or send it to the bottom of my list. There’s also the fact that it’s the second in a series.)

When putting together my list, I struggled to balance enjoyment and merit. There were a couple of books on the longlist (Eileen and The Sellout) that I didn’t enjoy much but that I have a hard time critiquing because so much of my disinterest is rooted in personal preference. I decided, however, that this is my list and that I would focus on my enjoyment. However, enjoyment here is graded on a curve.

And now, without further ado, is my personal shortlist, with links to my reviews.

  • The North Water by Ian McGuire. The most entertaining book on the list.
  • The Many by Wyl Menmuir. This is my pick to win because it offers the best mix of enjoyment and originality.
  • All That Man Is by David Szalay. I don’t care what the marketing says, this is a short story collection. The stories are all centered on a single theme of toxic masculinity, and they’re mostly engaging and disturbing.
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Rich in symbolism and weirdness, this isn’t my favorite type of book, but it’s a good example of its type.
  • Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Standard literary fiction. Nothing objectionable about it. I found it pleasant enough.
  • His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Clever and entertaining, but gets draggy and repetitive toward the end.

As I write this, our shadow jury is debating our shared list, and I’ll have a post on it tomorrow. I can guarantee that it won’t match my own.

As far as the real list, which will be announced Tuesday, I’m throwing my hands in the air and assuming they jury will shortlist all the books I didn’t select. Our tastes just do not overlap.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

His Bloody Project

his-bloody-projectI love a good historical thriller, so I was delighted to see this book by Graeme Macrae Burnet on the Booker longlist. It was, after all, the Booker longlist that finally got me to read Sarah Waters. Might Burnet be as good as Waters? Okay, that’s too much to hope for perhaps, but something along the lines of Michael Cox would be perfectly fine. And there is a great deal about this book to enjoy.

Burnet frames the story as something he came across when doing research into the life of his grandfather. The book itself is a collection of documents, the bulk of which is the memoir by 17-year-old Roderick Macrae from the tiny Scottish village of Culduie. Roddy wrote the memoir in 1869 while in jail awaiting trial for a brutal triple murders. He admits to committing the crime, but the memoir provides some background into why and how he did it.

This memoir, on its own, is frequently ridiculous, and I rolled my eyes at a lot of it. A murderer with a heart of gold? Please. Give me Henry Drax of The North Water any day over that. But it is Roddy telling the story, and one of the first anecdotes he shares, involving the loss of his future victim’s sheep, reveals an essential aspect of his character that is crucial to keep in mind when reading the memoir.

Aside from Roddy himself being ridiculous, his story is a sad one, involving poverty and deprivation, often at the hands of Lachlan Broad, the man he eventually kills. A lot of it is predictable, in the way that so many stories of poverty are. Every attempt the family makes to better themselves is blocked. Roddy’s father is consumed with anger, seemingly believing that their misfortune is a judgment from God. It’s an engaging story, but on its own, it doesn’t amount to much.

It’s the documents that come after that make the memoir interesting. First, there’s a grisly description of the bodies of Roddy’s victims. Then, there’s an excerpt of a memoir by a criminal anthropologist who examined Roddy. And finally, there’s a lengthy account of Roddy’s trial.

These items are essential for showing Roddy’s memoir in the proper light. Without them, there’d be no way to know whether the ridiculousness of Roddy’s memoir was intentional or whether Burnet is a hackneyed writer trafficking entirely in cliche. However, I wish they’d been shorter. The trial account in particular was too long, especially when it went over many of the same points as in Roddy’s memoir without much deviation. And one particular event in the trial regarding the single witness for the defense was ridiculous enough that I began to doubt the author again.

Roddy’s defense hinges on the question of his sanity, and the documents that make up this novel raise a lot of interesting questions about what sanity looks like. To what degree, for example, is it defined by social class, with the more privileged deciding that those who live differently cannot be quite right? And could someone who kills in the way Roddy does possibly be considered sane? Can a person be driven to kill by circumstances? I think all of these points could have been pursued in a satisfying way without going over the same ground repeatedly, and the book might have packed more of a punch with less material after the shocking passage on the condition of the bodies.

I don’t know if this will make my Booker shortlist. I certainly found it entertaining, and I’m not one to discount that as an indicator of quality. But I’m also aware of the ways it falls short of what it could have been, which is very different from recognizing the skill behind a book but not really liking it much, which has been a common occurrence with this list.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 3 Comments

Hot Milk

hot-milkDeborah Levy’s novel about a twenty-something daughter and her ailing mother is one I’m going to be pondering for a while. Much like Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Homethis is a book that I’m not sure that I liked, but I’m finding a lot in it to think about. It’s an ambiguous sort of story, where the characters’ actions don’t make logical sense, and it’s not entirely clear how trustworthy anyone is.

The narrator, Sofia, has studied to be an anthropologist but is currently working in a London coffee shop and helping her mother, Rose, cope with a mysterious illness that has left her unable to walk. The mystery is not just Rose’s apparent paralysis but the fact that it comes and goes. To try and figure out what’s wrong, Rose has taken out a mortgage on her house, and she and Sofia have come to Spain to meet a specialist. While the specialist, Gómez, spends time getting to the bottom of Rose’s illness, Sofia is free to get to into a strange romance with a local woman, visit her father, and think about what she might do if her mother no longer needs her.

It’s clear early on that Rose’s illness is as likely to be in her head as in her body. What I wondered, however, is how much of a role Sofia has in keeping her mother sick. It’s not that she deliberately acts to keep her mother wheelchair bound. It’s more that she doesn’t question her mother’s version of events, whether they involve her illness or her divorce. By staying by her mother’s side, Sofia is able to avoid moving on and making the hard decisions that come with adulthood, and she’s able to have the moral high ground over her father who got religion and abandoned them both.

So with all of that in play, the sojourn in Spain is as much about Sofia finding a cure as it is about Rose. Circumstances require Sofia to learn to drive, to confront her sexuality, to make mistakes and see the consequences play out. She gets a chance to see her father for the first time in eleven years. This freedom is what she wants, as she herself knows:

I want to get away from the kinship structures that are supposed to hold me together. To mess up the story I have been told about myself. To hold the story upside down by its tail.

Levy fills this book with lots of odd incidents, but I couldn’t always work out what, if anything, they’re supposed to mean. Jellyfish, known also as Medusas, figure prominently, stinging Sofia when she swims, which she does even when flags are up warning of their presence. Medusa turns those who see her into stone, and Sofia seems to have turned herself into stone as she tends her mother. And the way to vanquish Medusa is through beheading, an idea that becomes important later on.

I find Levy a hard writer to really love, but I continue to find her writing interesting. I think this novel holds together better than her previous one, especially if approached as a character study of Sofia, rather than of Rose and her illness. Little observational notes scattered throughout the book show that Sofia is the real object of study, and the eventual revelation of who’s doing the studying makes for a satisfying conclusion.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 4 Comments

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Do Not Say We Have NothingIf you’ve been following my Man Booker reading this year, you’ll know that I’ve not been particularly happy about many of the books on the longlist. I’ve only thoroughly loved one of them (The North Water), and I’ve found two of them interesting enough to be worth considering (All That Man IsThe Many). The others have been enjoyable but ordinary reads (Work Like Any Other), interesting but flawed (My Name Is Lucy Barton), well-crafted but not enjoyable (Eileen, The Sellout), or ambitious and messy (Hystopia, Serious Sweet).

I was saving Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for late in my reading because it looked like something I’d be likely to love. The book, set partly in Canada but mostly in China, follows a family of musicians through the turmoil of 20th-century China. The book’s narrator, Marie, becomes interested in this history when her mother takes in Ai-Ling, the daughter of a family friend. Ai-Ling’s father, known as Sparrow, taught music to Marie’s father, Kai. Ai-Ling was seeking asylum after the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Kai had committed suicide the previous year in Hong Kong, and Marie realized how much she didn’t know him. As Ai-Ling shares her family story with Marie, she learns more about who her father was and the harrowing past that brought him to Canada, where she could be raised in peace.

This all sounds like a great idea for a book, but I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t deliver. There’s much too much going on, and the drama gets lost in long meditations on the power of music and of story. The characters communicate through a handwritten document that gets copied over again and again, and the story there distracts from the core struggle. And the framing device of Marie learning about Ai-Ling comes and goes (partly, I think, because it doesn’t work to communicate so much of the story in this way).

This book is another example of trying too hard. The main story of Sparrow and Kai and Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli is powerful. Their different paths through the Cultural Revolution are heart-breaking to read about. The book is at its best whenever it turns to the dilemmas these characters face about how to survive in a world where the rules keep changing and questions of when and how to stand up for what’s right.

The trouble is that the book seems to lack confidence in its own story. The commentary on music and literature feel like they’re there to make readers feel the characters’ passion, but the most heart-felt moments are when we see them in the heat of the struggle. The early chapters of the book are particularly vexing because they gloss over some of the particularly harrowing experience of imprisonment and separation. I’m not necessarily wishing for something as explicit and cruel as The North Water, but there’s a distance to the narration, especially early on, that diminishes the book’s power.

There are some standout scenes here that I expect will stick with me. Zhuli’s story in particular shows how merely trying to get through a day can be a struggle in tumultuous times when everyone is required to take a side (and only one side is safe). If this book had been shorter, I think it could have been far more powerful and had a stronger impact. As it is, it’s another Booker disappointment.

Now, with three books left, I’m still hoping for a clear winner. I had mixed feelings about Deborah Levy’s first book, so I wonder if I’ll feel the same about Hot Milk. His Bloody Project looks like a book I could adore, but it could easily go the other way, as Victorian pastiche so often does. I’ve liked the two other books by Coetzee that I’ve read, but the subject matter of The School Days of Jesus is risky. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s safe to say that my tastes are not in close alignment with this year’s Booker judges. Can I write in Larose for the shadow jury?

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 7 Comments