Review – Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

First up, an apology in advance for some of the content of this review, which may well be unbearable. This novel made me rediscover some of my youthful pretensions, a fact that I realised about 15 pages in, when I found myself thinking ‘This is like Tristram Shandy as written by Thomas Pynchon’.

Well, I stand by it. On the offchance that not everyone wasted quite as much of their misspent youth on esoteric literature as I did: Tristram Shandy was described by my favourite university lecturer as ‘the first postmodern novel’, quite some feat when you consider that it was published in 1759. It is, at bottom, a send-up; in an attempt to catalogue absolutely everything about his life, the narrator starts with his birth and – due to the fact that, to explain his birth, you have to go back to how and why his parents met, at least – ends some 500 pages later and five years earlier. Thomas Pynchon wrote one of my favourite cult novels, The Crying of Lot 49, which is a concise little masterpiece of connectivity and conspiracy theories.

The – I was going to say plot, but maybe ‘premise’ would be a better word. The premise of Satin Island is that everything is connected. The main character (and yes, he’s called U, and yes, that’s heavy-handed) is a corporate anthropologist, and has been tasked by his slightly shadowy boss with cataloguing modern life. ‘An anthropologist, she’d said; that’s…exotic. Not at all, I’d replied; I work for an incorporated business, in a basement.’

You’ll note that this novel is short, running to a little under 200 pages, and you may conclude from that that he doesn’t in fact achieve his goal. Well, wait and see. It’s a gloriously comic chronicle of the attempt, though. It’s also sprinkled with some pithy truisms of modern life, particularly modern corporate life, such as this one: ‘Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.’

Duncan White in the Telegraph said this about this novel: ‘Reading a McCarthy novel is like being in a McCarthy novel: everything is part of a fizzing network, the scope of which can never be fully apprehended.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think it’s the use of the word ‘fizzing’ that is perfect; that’s exactly how my brain felt when I was reading this, like it had been dipped in Alka-Seltzer. Passages like this one made me think about things and make connections in a way I hadn’t done before, or perhaps a way I had only done subconsciously (in the way that you read something and stop and say to yourself, surprised, ‘That’s so true!’):

‘Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe. My use of the word tribe here isn’t fanciful; it’s modern that’s the dubious term. The logic underlying the corporation is completely primitive.’

So is this one my Booker winner? Hmm, I don’t think so. Before the shortlist was announced I placed this one seventh on my list, so just outside it, but I actually quite like the fact that it got the nod – it’s part of the overall diversity of the shortlist, and I think it deserves it. I don’t hope it wins, though. There are a few places where I found it tripped over itself for trying to be so clever (the references to Schrodinger’s cat were a bit too laboured, for example, and it wasn’t the only place), and I think wherever McCarthy needed to make choices between including something to make him look clever and something else (plot, character, lyricism), the cleverness won. That will limit his audience; I think he knows that, and I don’t think he cares. But I expect the Booker panel will, and I don’t disagree with them for that.



The Coops Booker Prize – my (very subjective) shortlist

The 2015 Booker shortlist is announced on Tuesday (September 15th), and for the first time ever, the longlist interested me enough for me to try to read it in its entirety and come up with some predictions. Or if not predictions, then at least the books I will be complaining about if/when they do or don’t make it. It was hard; it was a pretty good list. But in the end – for me, anyway – there were a few clear winners, a few clear losers, and some better-than-average books in between. Here they are!

  1. A Little Life ***** Not exactly a departure from general opinion – the bookies’ odds are short on this one, between 2/1 and 4/1 – but I just adored it, and if it doesn’t even feature on the shortlist then I will get red and shouty.
  2. Did You Ever Have a Family **** An unexpected gem, this one has a quiet sort of grace which has stayed with me since I read the first page.
  3. The Fishermen **** Completely different to anything else on the longlist, in a good way
  4. Year of the Runaways **** A novel which made me see the world around me in a different way
  5. A Brief History of Seven Killings – I’m cheating a bit on this one, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I am confidently willing to predict that it will feature on my shortlist. The voice and texture of the narrative are so unusual that, once I realised that, I decided not to rush it – so I put it down until I had finished the others, and can’t wait to pick it up again.
  6. The Green Road **** The first of Anne Enright’s novels I’ve read, and much fuller than some of the other ‘family sagas’ on the list. Review to follow.

And the rest:

  1. Satin Island **** – I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this one, but in the end it landed just outside my top 6. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did get a spot on the shortlist, and that wouldn’t enrage me like it would some (I think this one has split opinion more than any of the others), but to me it doesn’t have the consistency of a winner. Review to follow.
  2. The Chimes *** – A really interesting and creative debut from a talented new voice. Review to follow.
  3. A Spool of Blue Thread *** – Not enough about this one that was special, in my opinion. It was the first one of the list I read, and I found it eminently forgettable compared to some of the others. I still suspect I’m not quite old enough to understand Anne Tyler!
  4. The Moor’s Account *** – The good bits were as good as anything on the shortlist; the bad bits were just a little too long to make it a top read.
  5. Lila *** – Beautiful writing, but a little too sad for me, in the end.
  6. Sleeping on Jupiter ** – It has India, and it has sexual violence; sadly both are done significantly better elsewhere on the longlist.
  7. The Illuminations ** – Makes an attempt at topics which should be necessary and topical, but never really finds a true voice.

Review – Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

I wasn’t sure about reading this one, because of the stupid bloody title. (Seriously, where is the question mark??) Its appearance in the book, when it does, is pretty darn clunky too, by the way.

Fortunately, that’s one of the only (minor) missteps in a book I otherwise loved. This fits an awful lot into its relatively few pages, about how humans interact with each other across a variety of different relationships and situations.

A few things I noticed:

The alternating narration:

I struggle sometimes with alternating points of view. I like to sink into a narrative, and its characters, and frequent changes in narrative voice can make that difficult. Here, though, it’s done well. I found it jarring at first, but I think too much first-person would have been overly sentimental, whereas all third-person might have ended up feeling a bit, well, impersonal. The voices themselves aren’t that different, which may have helped, and the points of view were also just interconnected enough to prevent it from feeling disjointed.

How good Bill Clegg is at capturing small-town politics:

‘The weekenders from the city not only take the best houses, views, food, and, yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too. They arrive at the end of each week texting and calling from trains and cars with their demands – driveways to be plowed, wood to stack, lawns to mow, gutters needing cleaning, kids to be babysat, groceries to be bought, houses to be cleaned, pillows needing fluffing. For some, we even put up their Christmas trees after Thanksgiving and take them away after New Year’s. They never dirty their hands with any of the things the rest of us have to, nor shoulder the actual weight of anything. We can’t bear them and yet we are borne by them.’ This from the cynical Edith, who doesn’t make many more appearances, but who is one of the book’s most distinct voices.

The small-town feel is best captured, though, by the Lydia chapters. These really capture both the claustrophobia and the sense of belonging (even when you don’t belong), in passages such as: ‘She kicks at a pile of leaves that have been raked and left uncollected on the sidewalk and considers the thousands of times she’s walked here – as a little kid, a teenager, a mother, and now. She can’t imagine anyone walking these sidewalks as many times as she has. My feet are famous to these sidewalks, she thinks, and the idea almost amuses her, its novelty breaking for a split second the panic that drove her from the coffee shop.’

The humour:

The varying points of view also allow for occasional glimpses of humour, and the levity of the everyday. For example: ’No one tells you about health inspectors or wheelchair access when you’re first thinking of opening a place that serves the perfect lentil soup, fresh-baked bread, and almond-milk cappuccino. And it’s a good thing they don’t, because otherwise there would be no restaurants or cafes or coffee shops anywhere.’

The unrelenting loneliness:

This is everywhere, and lasting, and true. ’She is lost and alone and it does not matter.’ Or, ‘There are no words precise enough to describe how wide and empty the world is when you lose someone that matters to you as much as Penny did to me.’

Anyone who can do abject loneliness and dry humour in 300 pages has something pretty special. Bill Clegg is a literary agent, but nothing about this feels ‘Establishment’ or by rote: even the short pen-portraits feel well-drawn, and like they’re included for a reason. Everyone is connected, and necessary, and vital. This isn’t a long novel – it’s one of the shortest on the longlist, I think – but nothing is missing; it feels whole.


Review – The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

I read this quickly, and digested it slowly. While I read it, though, I jotted down two words – ‘strangeness’ and ‘simplicity’.

Starting with the first: For me, a lot of the power of this story is derived from its differences to what I normally read. Set entirely in a small town in Nigeria, it achieves what I think is a studied simplicity of language and themes, without ever itself becoming simplistic.

The story is mainly domestic; four teenage and almost-teenage brothers take advantage of their father working away from home, and they go fishing, which he would never have let them do. They meet the local madman, Abulu, who makes a prophecy that leads to conflict between the eldest and the others. The conflict feels minor, resolvable, but Abulu’s prophecies have a habit of coming true, and so adolescent energy mingles with fear, and bad things start to happen. It’s a testament to the strength of the plotting that, despite this simplicity, the events feel inevitable as they unfold.

I think I said about ‘Lila’ that it could have been set at almost any time in the hundred years preceding it; this feels the same, so much so that the occasional reminder of its 1990s setting – the references to the Atlanta Olympics, the Nigerian football team, computer games – are jarring. That feels intentional, and maybe not so much a result of chronological distance as of cultural difference. From the superstitions and stories surrounding Abulu, the trickster, to the fable-like telling of the story of the brothers, to the language itself, we are constantly reminded that this story draws on a cultural tradition that doesn’t have its roots in western Europe. For example, this passage on language:

’Aside from this, Mother said all else in English instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure. English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet.’

This pulled the ground from under my feet, alright. A really impressive debut, and – in my opinion – not a bad pick for the shortlist.


Review – The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Two of the Booker longlist books, including this one, have Salman Rushdie quotes on their covers. It was Salman Rushdie who first made me realise what language could do, and started my love affair with postcolonial literature, so I was expecting big things from this.

And it did a pretty good job, although not at all in the way I expected. You shouldn’t go into it, as I half-did, expecting it to be Midnight’s Children. It’s certainly not magic realism; in fact it’s as much realism and as little magic as you can get, with its focus on the grey, grubby, panic-studded mundanity of immigrant life – overcrowded houses, building sites, and the backs of vans, not to mention the sheer number of misunderstandings. It feels necessary, though, and of its time (and place – well, places) in a way that fiction often doesn’t. The newspapers in the UK are full of immigration at present; if it’s not refugee camps at Calais, or frozen stowaways falling from the sky onto London roofs, then it’s right-wing politicians demonising anyone who talks with a funny accent. There is a lot of superb and even-handed journalism covering all of this, although not as much of it as there needs to be – but, to quote EL Doctorow, ‘The historian [or journalist] will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’

This novel, I think, goes a long way to telling us ‘what it felt like’. The narrative focuses on three men – boys, really – who travel from India to the UK in search of work, and on a girl who helps one of them to do so, and on what happens to all four of them during the boys’ first year in the UK. In explaining how each of the main characters got to where they are, we’re taken back to India for extended parts of the narrative, and these for me were the best bits – especially Tochi’s story, which had me wincing and (metaphorically) covering my eyes.

In fact Tochi, to me, was the most interesting character throughout. Of the three, he’s the one who has entered the UK illegally, smuggled into the country through a series of airport doors and heavy goods vehicles. (The other two, from India’s middle classes, are on a study visa and a marriage visa and – whilst they certainly don’t have an easy ride (just ask Avtar’s body parts) – their journey doesn’t seem quite as desperate.) The difference between where Tochi’s been and where he’s trying to get to is never clearer, for me, than in his exchange with an airport worker on his way out of India. ‘She asked if her uncle had shown him how to use an escalator – moving stairs. He said he hadn’t and she made a frustrated noise. She looked at the watch face on the underside of her slender wrist. “We don’t have time now. You’ll have to just work it out.”’ Let’s just take a second to imagine how freaked out we’d be, trying to navigate life in the UK, completely on our own, if we’d never even been on an escalator. Randeep and Avtar have their own rookie moments, including crossing gargantuan roads and staring at people in pubs, but it’s the escalator that stayed with me.

Being new to a country is one thing; staying new is something else. As someone from an uncomplicated ethnic background, I also remain fascinated by the relationship that ‘British Indians’ – in this context, those who have already been in the UK for years by the time the narrative starts – have with both India and with Britain. Reactions range from Dr Cheema, who doesn’t feel at home in Britain no ‘matter how many garden parties I threw for my neighbours’, to the middle-aged couples in Sheffield who have carried their ideas of the Indian caste system with them to the UK, to the teenagers – Randeep’s cousins, I think – who are completely uninterested in (and even embarrassed by) anything to do with the subcontinent. Even Narinder, born in the UK and comfortably middle-class, has an incredibly complex relationship with India through her community, family and (especially) religious ties. Through her in particular, Sahota eloquently makes the point that there will never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to multiculturalism – or at least not one that works. It’s a welcome addition to a debate that will only get louder in the UK over the next few years.


Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

‘Of course, they craved beauty, but that would have to wait. Or rather, they would have to wait for it.’


Let me start by saying that this is, easily, my book of the year. It might be my book of the decade. In the week or so since I started it, I have done all of the following:

  • Finished it – in 24 hours, which (given its 700+ pages) should tell you something in itself
  • Cried at it
  • Had, at one point, to go and read it in the bath (you’ll see why)
  • When asked how my weekend was, started my response each time with ‘Well, I read this book…’
  • Wallowed half-awake through a three-day book hangover
  • Seriously considered abandoning the idea of reading the rest of the Booker longlist, and instead just starting this again
  • Realised I didn’t have the emotional strength to read it again just yet
  • Slept with it by my bed for a few more days, just – you know – just because
  • Finally, finally started to move on.

Just kidding on that last one.

Right, now that act of catharsis is over with:

This feels like two different books. At least. For that reason alone, it should come with a health warning. BEWARE: You get drawn into caring about these characters when they seem young and relatively carefree, and you think this is going to be a combination of youth and New York City, in the tradition of Mary McCarthy or JD Salinger or Claire Messud, and then – oh, then all hell breaks loose, frankly. (Before you conclude that I’m a total idiot, I should point out that the UK cover is significantly more subtle than the US one.) Plenty of people have written plenty of words about the more shocking aspects of the plot, and I don’t see the need to repeat them here, so instead I’m just going to pick out a few points that have stayed with me:

‘Nurture over nature’

This novel is a temple – a cathedral, actually – to the power of friendship. The central relationship of Willem and Jude is utterly co-dependent, in a way that is by turns beautiful and heartbreaking and impossibly difficult, but that I found (and I may be mocked for this) ultimately uplifting. There are other relationships, particularly Jude’s relationships (with Harold, Andy, Ana), which are deeply touching, too. By way of contrast, the blood ties in the novel are weak, malnourished:

‘‘‘But they’re your parents,” Malcolm said to him once a year or so. “You can’t just stop talking to them.” But you could, you did: he was proof of that. It was like any relationship, he felt – it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither?’

The strongest characters in the book are those which build their own families. This point is made overtly:

‘Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship?…Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’

I found this statement unnecessary; the message is clear throughout the narrative. Which brings me to:

Too much of a good thing?

If I had to pick a flaw, it would probably be this one, and I know I’m not the only one to say it: On occasion, this brick-sized book hits you over the head with its message. Sometimes, the lights are a little too bright, the words a little too many, the misery piling up until you think that surely, surely, nothing else can happen to this poor boy. Afterwards, in the days after I read it when I was absorbing everything I could about the novel (a bit like stalking an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page), I think I read an interview with Yanagihara where she said this was on purpose, and I think I understand – I actually found it quite cathartic; if Dickens was alive and living in New York, in the 21st century, then I wonder whether he might have written something like this. And just as I forgive Dickens his occasional purple prose, I can’t begrudge it here. I think the reason it’s OK is because of:

The humour

I’m fully aware that all of the above makes me sound like a hypocrite. When I reviewed ‘Lila’, one of my complaints was that it was unrelenting. Well, good Lord, the same charge could be levelled at this, and over more than twice as many pages. And yet, it’s punctuated by exchanges like this one:

‘Now he was researching his fourth book, a sequel of sorts to The American Handshake, about the Constitution, from a similar perspective.

“But only the Bill of Rights, and the sexier amendments,” Harold told him when he was interviewing him for the research assistant position.

“I didn’t know some were sexier than others,” he said.

“Of course some are sexier than others,” said Harold. “Only the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth are sexy. The rest are basically the dross of politics past.”

“The thirteenth is garbage?” he asked, enjoying himself.

“I didn’t say it was garbage,” Harold said, “just not sexy.

“But I think that’s what dross means.”

Harold sighed dramatically, grabbed the dictionary off his desk, flipped it open, and studied it for a moment. “Okay, fine,” he said, tossing it back onto a heap of papers, which slid toward the edge of the surface.’

(I’m fully aware that this sort of exchange might make some people want to beat their heads against the nearest wall. But I loved it.)

And finally:

The impossible ache of comparing yourself to others

This is dotted throughout, but in particular it’s a very in-your-twenties thing to do, I think, and Yanagihara nails it. This is already a very special novel, long before you get to what you might call its central storyline. For example, look at how it captures feelings like this, of doing well and badly all at the same time:

‘Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement…but in those moments he would at times find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! – it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.
But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.’

I was going to include a separate section on the beauty of the language, but this review is quite long enough already and I think the quote above will do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy copies of this book for everybody I know.