Written by Books

The Booker Prize 2011

Yesterday, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.
In the past, I’ve read some, but by no means all, Booker Prize winners. And of course I’ve read a fair number of the nominees. But this year, I made a concerted effort to read every novel on the shortlist. And I finished the last title on Monday evening.
Anyway, here are my thoughts, for better or worse, on the shortlist, in the order that I read them:

I read Snowdrops a while ago on its original publication, and it’s a great book set in modern day Moscow written by an author who used to be The Economist’s correspondent there. In tone, in greatly reminds me of Andrey Kurkov’s novel’s in the sense that anything can and will happen. That said, there are no penguins.
Not a novel to make you want to book your next holiday to Moscow, but nonetheless a fascinating portrait of the city.

For whatever reason, I’ve never entirely got on with Julian Barnes before. Arthur and George remains unfinished (even though it’s a subject that fascinates me), and while I did read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, I could tell you nothing about it now.
I had no such problems with The Sense of an Ending, but then that’s hardly surprising given that it’s only 160 pages long. Indeed, frankly, it’s actually a novella. Other book awards would place it in that category. I’ve nothing against short-form fiction, and indeed it’s much maligned. (As an aside, I’ve recently been reading some superb short stories by Elmore Leonard – When the Women Come Out to Dance – sadly out of print).
The story is compelling, and the conclusion is moving. I did like it very much. But I’m not sure it’s truly the best on this list.

Jamrach’s Menagarie is a great tale of a young boy who lives in the East End of a Victorian London, and his early life as first learns to look after animals captured around the world for sale to zoos, and then embarks on a voyage around the world. The bulk of the book is formed by this voyage, and to say that the last third is tough going would be an understatement.
Not in the sense that you aren’t thoroughly gripped by the story, and excellent writing, but the
I thought that this was excellent.

Half Blood Blues follows the lives of a group of black and mixed-race jazz musicians plying their trade in Berlin as the second world war approaches. The book opens in Paris, where they’ve fled, and where one of their number is arrested. Then we hop back to Berlin, and also see events from the early nineties, where a letter has appeared out of nowhere.
What follows is an incredible insight into a group of people I suspect few of us had really ever thought about – black people under Nazi occupation.

The Sisters Brothers is essentially a western. But a western with a wonderful tone of voice. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers. Ending a man’s life means very little to them, and they perform their tasks with alacrity. They work for the Commodore, a powerful man who dispatches people who cross his path. The book opens with the pair heading out from Oregon to the goldrush of California, where they have a man they need to kill.
What makes this novel so enjoyable is the dialogue the pair of them have. We follow events from Eli’s perspective. He’s slightly less violent, although he has a temper. And really, he wants to give up the whole “hired killers” thing, and settle down to open a trading post somewhere. Highly recommended.

Pigeon English is one of only two books in the shortlist that’s set completely in the present day. We explore the word from the perspective of the 11 year old Harri, a recent immigrant from Ghana who lives with his mum and sister in a council block in London. Another boy has been murdered, and as the story unfolds Harri and his friend begin to “investigate” the murder.
The dialogue in this book is wonderful. Even more that Room, I really felt that the author, Stephen Kelman, had truly got into the head of this young boy. It all rang true, and the things that delight and amaze small children from any culture are truly reflected in this book.
Harri likes making lists, and at times the novel is broken up as he presents a list of things that fall under a particular category – the rules of school or people who are “Vs” other people. Again, thoroughly recommended.
There really was a lot of nonsense surrounding the Booker this year talking about what should and shouldn’t have been included. I’ve read neither Alan Hollinghurst nor Philip Hensher, but then reviews of their most recent titles don’t especially appeal to me.
In any case, this struck me as a pretty worthwhile list of titles, and I enjoyed them all.
I think I’d say that Jamrach’s Menagarie is the book I liked the most, but The Sisters Brothers came a close second, and I can’t complain about a single title on the shortlist at all. If nothing else, the list did shake up my fiction reading beyond some of the usual suspects, and that can’t have done me any harm.