As you will have figured out by now I have mentally ‘traffic lighted’ all the Booker books, according to my expectations of how much I will enjoy them.
Red = unlikely, green = very likely, yellow = so / so.
This was always a yellow book in my head. So I suppose I should feel vindicated. This book was utterly middling – very yellow (even the cover is yellow!). Not bad, not good.
But instead I feel strangely depressed. I expected more of the Man Booker selectors. They are, after all, the experts. And even accounting for the fact that everyone has a different, personal, response to books, I am not convinced this is going to be on many peoples’ shortlists. And here’s why:
1. The ending
I am always a little dubious when the first thing that somebody tells me about a book is how good, or clever or *insert other appropriate positive adjective* the end of a book is, and that therefore I must read it.
There is a lot of book before you get to the end. I think, really, the whole of a book (give or take) should be good and worthy of praise. If it has to be redeemed by a brilliant ending, in my head that is a sign of recognition on the author’s part that they have failed and that they are seeking to capture you back, before it is too late.
And this book is all about the end, which is a little bit clever (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it).
2. I was mis-sold
Okay, so we know I don’t particularly like books about depression, or endless misery, or any of that sort. But still, I took the blurb-writers on their word and feel a little misled and a little betrayed. It isn’t really about depression at all. It is less grand and more small minded than that. Its a little about history and its impact on the present, but mostly it is about fear and self indulgence. The Bell Jar it is not.
3. Simply too short
A part of me wonders whether the main flaw with this novel is that it is simply too short (178 pages). There was no time for the plot to develop – it just was, just happened, before you could get caught up in caring much either way. Its not quite a novella (and I am not entering the ‘can a novella win big literary prizes’ debate) but it feels like one. And I am not sure I like it.
3b. So not long enough for character development
In a lot of books (and maybe this is an insight into my limited levels of empathy) I find it hard to care about most of, if not all, the characters. But I usually know who I am supposed to care about, or be rooting for. In this novel, I couldn’t even figure that out. Each character appeared to be there to serve a purpose, or play their part, rather than act as a whole person would, in a real scenario. They didn’t really develop, which may just be because there were so many of them: given the length of the novel I think nine is a little excessive.
4. No emotional response
I know the characters didn’t excite me, because I only felt an emotional response to one character, once, in the whole book. Now even by my low-empathy standards, that is pretty pathetic.
He is thinking how nobody visited him at boarding school, while his peers seemed indifferent to their regular visitors:
“if his own parents had visited him too, he would have stood forever in the tyre marks their cars had made in the dust”
But that was it. That was the one time I felt particularly emotionally engaged with anyone. Instead, the characters often annoyed me, either because they were so one-sided or self-pitying or both. To prove my point, some extracts from the text:
“Knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would it make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see”.
“Its always raining if you’re feeling sad”.
“They know they have to dream themselves out of life and back into it, because life must always win us back”.
Replaying them, like this, to myself, they sound more like lines from a hokey romantic comedy than a potentially award-winning novel.
But it isn’t all bad
Just for clarity I didn’t hate the book as much as all the above made it sound. It was just very middling (aside: can something be very middling?) But I wolfed it down, read it in two days and mentally lived in the setting throughout (the best writing by far).
I don’t regret reading it. But now its over, I won’t remember it. I can feel myself forgetting it already…
And now for something completely different. Coming next… Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/books/bring-bodies
Now that’s a red book.