IF THEY PREFER MAGIC REALISM
Across between a Dickens novel and Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker winning novel Life of Pi, Carol Birch’s (pic above) novel tells the story of young Jaffy Brown, who is literally saved from the jaws of a tiger in 19th century London by Charles Jamrach, the owner of a collection of exotic animals. Working in Jamrach’s menagerie, Jaffy grows up until he is set on a sea voyage to the Dutch East Indies by his benefactor and employer to capture a dragon for the menagerie. Birch’s stylised writing captures the smog and soot of Oliver Twist’s London as well as the fantastic ideas spilling into Victorian London, not least by the discoveries of Charles Darwin. Colourful and with wafts of the sheer ‘fantastickical’, Jamrach’s Menagerie is a deceptively told tale of growing up, adventure and loss that mixes historical fiction with that of ‘boy’s adventures’ fantasy.
I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began. Say Bermondsey and they wrinkle their noses. Still, it was the home before all other homes. The river lapped beneath us as we slept.
IF THEY PREFER HISTORICAL FICTION
Music and history riff together in Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s (pic above) second novel that takes us into the cigarette smoke-filled rooms of Nazi-Germany. But it’s Hitler’s Germany that doesn’t find much mention in non-fiction, never mind fiction: the lives of Blacks in a White Supremacist society. Sidney is one of the characters who left apartheid America to be in liberal Europe. Hiero is a native of Rhineland, once French territory, now under German control. Unlike Sidney, who simply because of his being American, finds a relatively better life in Nazi Germany than in Baltimore, Hiero’s story is a spiralling tale of tension and fear. But what holds them together is the counter-cultural glue of jazz. With emotional depth and a rich strain of history to retell, Edugyan creates a world usually forgotten. All well-tempered by the love of jazz.
Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from rot — rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water.
IF THEY PREFER BLACK COMEDY
The Sisters Brothers
This is the classic ‘narrator’s voice’ novel. You can hear Eli Sisters chewing tobacco and telling you how he and his brother Charlie set off one day from mid-19th century Oregon to California for the single-minded purpose of killing a man as ordered by the shadowy Commodore. Written in a dead-pan, saddle-up and trot style, The Sisters Brothers is a voyage in which one man — and we know from the start it will be Eli — strays from the path and is having second thoughts about his job of killing people. And to make matters worse, there are digressions like love and violence and lethargy to be confronted. Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt (pic below) hits pitch perfect tone in this black comedy that has the rawness of Charles Portis’ classic coming of age-cum-Western novel True Grit and the sudden meaninglessness of life of a Samuel Beckett play.
I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble.
IF THEY PREFER A THRILLER
In Moscow slang, ‘snowdrop’ refers to the corpse hidden in the snow, laid bare when the thaw sets in. Nicholas Platt, the British banker protagonist, is in Putin’s Russia, with its dizzying glut of wealth and equally mind-boggling desperation, negotiating, and failing to avoid the slippery moral curve of a country in transition. Perhaps, ‘snowdrop’ is also the truth that evades Platt as he gets involved with Masha, the blonde sexual enchantress.
AD Miller (pic below) was the Economist’s Moscow correspondent, and gets his dope on Russia right. As a character in the book tells Platt, if you are likely to be anxious or guilty, “you shouldn’t do Russia”. The dim, yet funny expat’s account is entertaining, but the plot ends up wearing thin. The infelicities of language also jar: “… beneath the fur coats and grimaces, you knew that the Russians were happy, relatively speaking.”
I smelled it before I saw it. There was a crowd of people standing around on the pavement and in the road, most of them policemen, some talking on mobile phones, some smoking, some looking, some looking away. ...they were blocking my view and at first I thought that with all the uniforms it must be a traffic accident or maybe an immigration bust.
IF THEY PREFER HIGH LITERARY
The Sense of an Ending
This novella by Julian Barnes (pic below) is also narrator-driven. But Tony Webster has already played his role as life’s journeyman and now has decided it’s a good time to settle back and remember. The retired, divorced and re-married Tony engages with memories of a younger Tony. Chiselled sentences mark memories as well as the act of remembering. The first part of the book deals with Tony’s memories of being a “book-hungry, sex-hungry” sixth form student in the 1960s. The atmosphere is not unlike Barnes’ first novel Metroland. But here, he turns the coming-of-age novel into a meditation on coming-of-old-age. Much of this ‘chamber novella’ deals with the narrator’s doubts about his memories. As Barnes makes him say: “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left.”
I remember, in no particular order: a shiny inner wrist; steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it; gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house; a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams.
IF THEY PREFER A CHILD'S EYE VIEW
Much like beauty, the shifting avatar that is truth often lies in the eyes of the beholder. That beholder, in Philip Kelman’s (pic below) debut novel, is Harrison, a young boy from Ghana recently emigrated to England with his mother and sister Lydia. Harrison’s new neighbourhood is tough: a mother stands guard there over the blood of a murdered son, and ruthless killer gangs of boys, in and out of school, take pride in how many they have ‘chooked’. The young Harrison adapts to his new environment: the language never ceases to wonder (in England, “gay and dumb and lame mean all the same”) and with ample supplies of flour, he finds a mentor in a pigeon that frequents his balcony. Kelman’s presentation of the child’s point of view is credible and touching, even as Harrison gets embroiled in increasingly complicated events.
You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy.
Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’
Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’
Jordan: ‘One quid then.’
You wanted to touch it but couldn’t get close enough. There was a line on the way.
But who needs a booker when you’ve got a prix goncourt?
Readers in Commonwealth countries and Ireland are still debating over whether this year’s Booker jury has opted for a ‘dumbed down’ shortlist. But France doesn’t care for such silly debates. It awarded French literature’s highest annual honour, the Prix Goncourt, last year to Michel Houellebecq for his novel La Carte et le Territoire (out in English now as The Map and the Territory) thereby underlining that Literature’s not the Top of the Pops. Houellebecq's novel is a satirical fugue on the world of art and culture centred around a misanthropic artist. The story also has an alcoholic celebrity-author named Michel Houellebecq who is brutally murdered. In Bookerland, they’d call it ‘post-modern’. In France, they call it delightful playfulness’.