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Update on The Arts: Aug – October 2022

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Because of time limitations, my involvement in the Arts has been largely restricted to reading fiction over the past three months, with a focus being around the Booker Prize (see below).  Hence, I only discuss books in this update, rather than the occasional movie, play or Netflix series that I may have watched.  


My reading over these three months has been dominated by the long-list and short list put out by the Booker Prize judges.  Having read only two of the long-listed 13 novels before the list was announced (Glory by Noviolet Bulawayo and Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet), I set out to read the remaining 11.  As the date for the short-list fast loomed, I realised I wasn’t going to get through all 11 so decided to focus on the short-list of six instead.  Below are my thoughts on all of the short-list, some of the long-list that I managed to read as well as several other novels that I read post-Booker.

Booker Short-List

The Trees by Percival Everitt.  This book is incredible.  It is unput-downable and a page-turner.  I would never have discovered it (or its author) if it hadn’t been nominated for the Booker Prize.  And I’m so pleased I did.  It is a blend of satire, laugh-out-loud humour and horror.  But all of this is embedded within a very serious context – the deadly racism that permeated the United States during the 20th century, including the 7000+ lynchings of black Americans that have happened since 1910.  With its rapidly rising numbers of murdered and mutilated white men found alongside black almost zombie-like corpses, one begins to wonder whether the lynched are indeed taking their revenge on the lynchers.  But it made even more deadly serious when one realises that it is set directly in the middle of Trump’s white-supremacist America.  The lynchings are not historic – just think George Floyd.  

 Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.  This novel is a fusion of myth and magic with some deep philosophical insights.  On the surface, it’s the tale of a friendship between a young lad (who loves to read comics) and a rag-and-bone man (the titular character).  But beneath the surface, the reader is encouraged to explore and even unravel concepts of reality and time through the characters’ actions and interactions – is it in the here-and-now, or maybe it’s all part of a dream, or maybe the main character has in fact died?  Intriguing it may sound – and beautifully written it is definitely is – but personally I like my novels to be a little more rooted in reality than this one is.

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout.  This tender novel – largely looking at the intricacies of middle-class domestic life – took me into the territory of Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett’s best work.  But with a difference.  Whereas Tyler and Patchett’s novels are largely plot driven, this novel is largely driven by reminiscences that appear to be randomly selected but are in fact very strategically selected.  Although it is ostensibly about the life of the narrator’s previous husband, it is in fact about the narrator’s (Lucy Barton – brought to life in Strout’s previous two novels) ultimate realisation that “we are all mythologies, mysteries”.  But we discover so much about ourselves – and others – along the way.  An engaging read.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan.  This slim but beautiful novel – set in rural Ireland in the mid 1980s – might be considered a re-telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  It is the gradual realisation of one (largely likeable) man that the religion that he, his family, friends and colleagues align to needs challenging.  The catalyst for this is his accidental discovery of an accursed Magdalen laundry run by the local convent, and the links he makes between his own birth and upbringing and what is happening in the laundry.  Will he be able to take on the challenge?  It is not a book full of dramatic moments; instead, it is a relatively quiet and gentle book but one with a huge heart and great resonance.  Set in the festive season, it deserves to be read every Xmas. 

The Seven Moons of Maali Almedida by Shehan Karunatilaka.  This novel, a state-of-the-nation portrait of Sri Lanka in the turbulent war-torn 1980s, is a blend of magical realism (in the tradition of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and blood-soaked horror.  Magical realism in that it is ‘told’ (in second person) by the spirit of the titular character who dies in mysterious circumstances at the beginning of the novel, and blood-soaked horror in that he recalls the mayhem and destruction that he experienced (and continues to experience) and wants to expose to the wider world.  But there is also a sense of sardonic humour pervading it, meaning that the reading process is not as gruelling as it might have been.  This is arguably summed up on page one when the titular character is introduced as a “photographer, gambler, slut”.  I really liked this book. 

Glory by Noviolet Bulawayo which I had read already.

My favourite for the Booker was Everitt’s The Trees but I would’ve been happy for most of the others to win.  Indeed, I was pretty happy on learning that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida had won – it was probably second favourite on my list.  It will, I predict, become a classic. 


Others on the Long-List

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, both as page-turning exploration of a fascinating theatrical family (father Junious is a revered Shakespearean actor and three of his ten children, including the infamous John Wilkes Booth, follow in his footsteps) and a chilling reflection on the role of ‘tyrants’ and ‘the mob’ in American politics.  Within its 500 pages, Fowler explores not just a bohemian and eccentric family but the social and political fabric of the times.  She intertwines beautifully the real (much of the content can be verified through research and we all know what happened to John Wilkes) and the imagined inner lives of its key characters.  This book was justifiably long-listed for the Booker Prize and I was surprised that it did not make the short-list.  I see it as a close relative to last year’s short-listed The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.  

Trust by Hernan Diaz.  I was intrigued by this novel all through my reading of it.  it is in fact and amalgam of four interconnected sections collectively depicting an American tycoon and his ailing wife (think Jay Gatsby and Zelda Fitzgerald) and explores the concept of the origins of wealth.  Set between New York and Zurich immediately before, during and after the Great Depression, it is so clever in its structure.  The first section is a fictional telling of Andrew and Mildred Rask’s lives; the second is Andrew’s telling of his own life; the third is Andrew’s fantasy telling of his wife’s life as written by a hired hand; the fourth is Mildred’s long lost desires (written in diary form) that finally “tell the truth”.  All is not as it long seemed.  The novel is an elegant fascinating literary puzzle and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. 

Other Books Read in the Period

Joan by Katherine Chen.  This is a riveting read.  As a fictional telling of Joan of Arc’s short life, it brings alive her beginnings, her childhood and her emergence as a warrior in a beautifully written and very accessible way.  Here is a girl born into medieval poverty and abuse who discovers her fighting prowess and takes on the English, almost as an avenging angel.  I have no idea whether some of the factual assertions in the novel are true – was she really the fighter that Chen portrays her as – but I lived her extraordinary life through the 350 pages, just as I had lived Cromwell’s extraordinary life in Hillary Mantel’s trilogy of intrigues around Henry VIII’s court.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy.  This novel, based on true facts, engrossed me from beginning to its shocking end.  Set in 1975 during the Troubles in Belfast, it focusses on the consequences of an illicit love affair (between a young female primary teacher and an older married barrister) and sectarian rivalry and violence.  Like any tale told in this context, it is an amalgam of the personal and the political.  What hope did young people have in this context?  And Kennedy writes with such conviction that you believe every page.  Highly recommended, especially for readers who like realism, rich characterisation and great story-telling.  

Blue Tiepolo by James Cahill.  I should’ve loved this book and I did like it in many ways.  It is very readable.  But by the end I wasn’t so sure.  Set between Cambridge and London in 1995 in which the main character is a renowned art historian and expert in the paintings of Tiepolo, it moves gradually from the world of academia to a world of grunge and degradation.  Described by critics as a ‘psychosexual odyssey’ I couldn’t quite believe in the awakenings that not only the main characters but also some of the peripheral characters experienced.  One critic stated that it got “queerer and queerer in both senses of the word” as it went on – I wouldn’t dispute this. 





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