I spent most of October reading the six short-listed novels for the 2019 Man Booker Prize: ‘The Testaments’ (Margaret Atwood); ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ (Lucy Ellmann); ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ (Bernadine Evaristo); ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ (Chigozie Obioma); ‘Quichotte’ ( Salman Rushdie); ‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ (Elif Shafak).
I commented on some of these in my last book blog, but here are some summarising notes:
‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood – a great narrative and a real page-turner taking me into a dark American future but with a little light at the end of the tunnel. I was really engaged in this book but didn’t think it was Atwood’s masterpiece as others have described it.
‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann – a huge challenge (1002 pages; one sentence only) but worth it. It delves deep into the (reasonably accessible) mind of a middle-aged American woman as she tries to make sense of Trumpian America.
‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo – I loved this book; probably my favourite of the short-list. A series of short tales interlinked through cross-over characters and designed to generate a collective portrait of black women in today’s (and yesterday’s) United Kingdom. It opens at the National Theatre (London) as a new play by the (arguably) central character is about to open, and ends at the opening night party of the said play. I highly recommend this book.
‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ by Chigozie Obioma – I liked this because it took me into an African world (Nigeria) that I had never previously experienced. Ostensibly a love story (narrated by the main character’s guardian spirit) but ultimately a tragedy as destiny takes over from desire.
‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie – I enjoyed this novel much more than I had enjoyed Rushdie’s last novel, ‘The Golden House’. Inspired by Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ and written on two levels (level one: a washed-out writer faces gruelling challenges in his personal life; level two: the same writer brings to life an imaginary character who sets off on picaresque and sometimes dangerous adventures across contemporary America), the book both engaged me and challenged my imagination through its intertwining of both stories.
‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ by Elif Shafak – an incredibly moving portrait of a set of outcast characters in contemporary Istanbul; presented as a memory piece by a prostitute in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds that it takes for the brain to close down after death.
For once, I would’ve been happy for any of these novels to have won the prize, but was utterly delighted that Bernadine Evaristo was in the mix. Some people disparage literary prizes; I don’t, for they invariably introduce me to books and authors that I might not have otherwise encountered – I would have read the Atwood and maybe the Rushdie anyway; but probably not the others. As a result of the competition, Bernadine Evaristo will now go on to my list of ‘must reads’.
Since completing the sextet of short-listed novels, I also read during October:
‘Machines Like Me’ by Ian McEwan – a fascinating read. A revision of 1980’s UK history (with Alan Turing still alive and widely lauded; the Falklands War having been lost by the UK; human-kind being replicated by robots at a 98% success rate), this is a bizarre and sometimes challenging narrative of a three-way love affair (one man; one woman; one robot!!) in a world of political and social upheaval. Much like today’s Brexit world!!
‘The Secrets We Kept’ by Lara Prescott – this is not ‘high literature’ or ‘high art’ but I thoroughly enjoyed this strong narrative set between the USSR and the USA in the 1950s as Boris Pasternak is determined to get his ‘Doctor Zhivago’ into the big wide world and the CIA see propaganda potential in enabling this to happen.
‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett – I loved this book. Almost a re-telling of a traditional fairy story, involving ‘two lost children’, a ‘wicked step mother’ and a ‘good but distant father’ and set between Philadelphia and New York in the 1960’s onwards. I could not put this very strong and engrossing narrative (with its beautifully drawn characters and relationships) down and would love to have seen it on the Man Booker short-list. Highly recommended.
I’m now beginning ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead…
THEATRE RECENTLY ATTENDED
I have seen two very different plays over the past few weeks: ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ by Oscar Kightley and Simon Small at the Court Theatre, Christchurch; and ‘Heroes’ by Gerald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard at the Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna. I enjoyed both but for very different reasons.
‘Fresh Off the Boat’ (originally performed in 1990) tells of a middle-aged Samoan man (with traditional Samoan world views) arriving in New Zealand, and the challenges he and his family face as they try to live together in a ‘new world’. I liked this play (which I had never seen before) because it has ‘something to say’ and disagreed with the Christchurch critic who judged that it was somewhat out-of-synch with today’s world. It also featured two strong central performances from Jake Arona and Sela Faletolu-Fasi.
I had seen ‘Heroes’ twice before (once in Auckland; once in Christchurch) and found this to be the most successful production, arguably because it was played in a very intimate setting. Strongly performed (particularly by Bruce Phillips), this comedy-drama of three elderly veterans dreaming of a life outside their rest home in the middle of France, both moved me and made me laugh – a lot!
MOVIES RECENTLY SEEN
I looked forward to seeing and (unlike some critics) wasn’t disappointed with ‘Jo Jo Rabbit’. Under-pinned by Taika Waititi’s quirky sense of humour, this very engaging and funny tale of childhood in Nazi Germany resonates very strongly (and uncomfortably) with today’s populist-driven world. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson were hysterically funny and Scarlett Johansen was very moving.
But the highlight of the past month for me has been ‘Official Secrets’ with Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes and Matt Smith. I like political thrillers and this story (based on fact) of a British whistle-blower set just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq had me mesmerised and on the edge of my seat. It was part of the British Film Festival touring the country and if it returns (it should) I would highly recommend it.
Another film from the Festival that I would recommend is ‘The Song of Names’ – a very moving story of the Holocaust told by a young man who was moved from Poland to London in the 1930s and devotes his life to finding out what happened to his family. Quiet and unassuming and beautifully made.
Other films I saw at the Festival were ‘Fisherman’s Friends’ (warm and enjoyable), ‘Happy New Year Colin Burstead’ (a family reunion comedy – reasonably enjoyable); and ‘Old Boys’ (trite).