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Six of the Best

I’m currently making good progress in my challenge to read the entire Man Booker Prize longlist. So far I have finished six of the thirteen books.

The Sisters Brothers by Canadian author Patrick deWitt,  is a western, darkly humorous in tone. The eponymous brothers are Charlie, who loves the violent life the brothers share as hired killers, and the narrator, Eli, who longs for a more peaceful existence. The novel follows what Eli hopes will be their last job. Often amusing, sometimes thrilling, occasionally moving, this is a solid novel and well worth a read.

Pigeon English is the tale of Harrison Opoku, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian boy, recently arrived in the UK, and his response to the violent murder of a boy from his school. Narrated by Harrison, its attempts to get inside the mind of a child didn’t quite work for me, the supporting characters sometimes seem stereotyped, while the parts narrated by a pigeon just came across as gimmicky. That said, it had its moments, and was ultimately quite touching, if a little depressing. A decent first-time novel, just not my thing.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is an old-fashioned adventure story. It’s Treasure Island and Moby Dick and any number of Dickens novels rolled into one.  The title is misleading: the menagerie is only briefly seen, and most of the story takes place on a whaling ship where the protagonist, young Jaffy Brown, is charged with bringing home a dragon. Constantly engaging, this is a real page-turner.

The Sense of an Ending is a slim but tightly written story of love and regret, memory and misunderstanding. Its narrator is contentedly average, retired and reconciled to the mistakes accumulated over his sixty years or so, until he receives a letter that brings to mind a pivotal series of events from his past. There’s a mystery but Tony is in no hurry to solve it, going about it largely with the methodical patience of a determined man with time on his hands. At a time in his life when he thought he had everything figured out he learns some uncomfortable truths about life and memory, and most of all, about himself.

One reviewer recommended reading it again with the benefit of knowing the revelation that comes on the final pages. I may allow myself that luxury some day.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller was for me the only dud of the bunch so far. The tale of a British lawyer living in post-Soviet Russia who gets involved in something shady, it failed to get my interest. The author lived in Russia so he’s able to describe some of the quirks of Russian society as seen by an outsider, but that’s about it. The story is thin and the writing is average, sometimes even clumsy. I’m really not sure why it was nominated for such a prestigious award.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst is the closest thing to a masterpiece among this eclectic bunch. A sweeping, ambitious tale of a family and a society in flux, it spans almost a century in the lives of the Sawle and Valance families. Each part begins after a jump of several years, or even decades and the author has fun with the disorientation that follows as the reader tries to work out who’s who and where the new characters fit in. The events he relates directly are mostly trivial; all the upheaval – births, marriages, deaths etc. – happens off-stage and is looked at only in reflection. The reader has to work to fit the pieces together, and Hollinghurst leaves things open, so that we, like the characters in the book, are never entirely sure of what has happened.

It is a very likely winner and I am absolutely certain it will be shortlisted. My guess is that The Sense of an Ending will join it, and possibly Jamrach’s Menagerie. I’d like to see The Sisters Brothers there too but I suspect it won’t make the cut.

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