Tag Archives: man booker longlist 2018

Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

I was hoping to finish the Man Booker longlist in November, but I had a seriously tough time getting a copy of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. I could tell you the whole story of paying for copies I never received and discovering that none of the libraries in my local loan system would carry a copy when the US version released, but I’ll leave it at the fact that I did finally get a copy and managed to fit it in just before the new year. If it wasn’t a title I was particularly looking forward to reading and the only Booker nominee I had left, I probably would’ve given up out of sheer frustration. But I’m glad I didn’t!

inourmadandfuriouscityAbout the book: London is a place full of anger and tragedy for the five main characters of this novel. Three teenaged boys try to hold on to their summer freedom in the aftermath of a murder that brings riots and protests sweeping through the city. Two parents recall the gruesome paths that led their families to the Stones Estate. All five live very different lives, though the chaos in the city streets will link them all in the end.

This book’s chapters are subdivided into character sections. Each story is told differently, though the present situation in London runs clearly through the novel in chronological order. Some characters use flashbacks to convey important events. But the most notable difference in these sections is the use of dialect and slang that varies in heaviness by character. I found Nelson’s chapters the most unusual, in terms of wording and grammar, but most of the characters use colloquial phrases that are clear mainly through context. Though at some points I had to slow down my reading to parse exactly what was being said, I did feel that the variations in narration were a nice literary touch that helped distinguish each character and recalled the different backgrounds that had molded these people into the Londoners they’ve become. The characters are wonderfully diverse.

“How would it have felt to come from the same story? To have been molded out of one thing and not out of many? There was nothing more foreign to us than that. Nothing more boring and pale to imagine.”

Each of these characters take a stand in some way for themselves and/or their beliefs in the novel. Ardan pursues his passion for rap music, Caroline turns to independence when her family resorts to abhorrent behavior, Nelson advocates for minority rights and safety, Yusuf sides with the members of his religion when their mosque is challenged, and Selvon hones his body to fight his way free of the city that tries to hurt him and hold him back. Though each of these journeys is specific to each character’s motivations and history, their efforts tie their stories into one narrative that shows how suffering and victory affect more than the individual, especially in a place where the people live so close together. There’s a ripple affect.

In the end, my favorite aspect of the book was the underlying negative view of London. I’ve never been, and often in literature London seems to be displayed as this wonderfully messy and historic city that outsiders should envy; I very much appreciate seeing the other side of that coin. I found this dark glimpse much more compelling than any city idyll.

“So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colors, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feeling its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The light lies in the armored few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible. The only ones that can save us in the end are the heroes.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think after all the trouble I went through to get my hands on this book, I may have been expecting more from this story than I had a right to. My patience was thin by the time I picked it up. Even so, I’m not sure why this book didn’t advance to the shortlist, as it’s quite excellent. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more work from Gunaratne.

My reaction to the 2018 Man Booker longlist: what an adventure! This was my first year reading the entire longlist, and I’m sure it won’t happen every year going forward. I loved the look of the list when it was first announced, and added so many of the titles to my TBR that it made sense to push myself to pick up each one. I didn’t love them all equally, but even the books that disappointed me were engaging to read and I don’t regret the time I spent with them. The shortlist did not contain the six books I thought best from the longlist, but I am thrilled with Anna Burns’s Milkman taking the win! For more thoughts on each title, here are the rest of my longlist reviews, ranked in order of personal favoritism:

MilkmanEverything UnderThe Water CureNormal PeopleFrom a Low and Quiet Sea,  (In Our Mad and Furious City,)  The Mars RoomThe Long TakeThe OverstorySabrinaWarlightWashington BlackSnap.

What was your favorite Man Booker title for 2018 (even if you didn’t read them all)?


The Literary Elephant


Review: Normal People

I’m finally (and somewhat sadly) reaching the end of the Man Booker longlist: I’m still waiting for Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City to arrive in my mailbox, but in the meantime I finished book #12 (out of 13), Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I saved a couple of titles that I was really looking forward to for last, to end on a high note; Normal People did not disappoint.

normal peopleAbout the book: Connell’s mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. But though Marianne’s family is well-off and Connell’s is just scraping by, Connell is popular at school while Marianne is teased as an outcast. They’ve both accepted the status quo, but the beginnings of a romance between them changes everything. Connell does not want anyone to know what he’s doing with Marianne, and she likes him enough to keep quiet and sneak around. A betrayal changes everything again, but their paths cross again when they’ve both enrolled at the same university. Never quite together and never quite apart, Connell and Marianne navigate their complex relationship as they’re also making choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

“It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.”

This book is addicting. I read the entire novel in two sittings, about half one evening and half the next. On the surface, Rooney’s writing is simple and straightforward, describing the minutiae of these two characters’ unique lives and their primary emotions. Readers looking for flashy, fast-paced prose will not find much of interest here, but Rooney brings hidden depth to the ordinary.

I mentioned reading this book in halves because I had very different experiences with each. The first half of the novel read a bit like a Jane Austen romance for me, the opening conversation between Marianne and Connell simultaneously mundane and suggestive of the complicated long-lasting relationship that would clearly follow. There are ups and downs to the friendship/love between them, but in that first half Marianne and Connell are innocent and sweet (even when hurting each other), and their every interaction is laced with destiny.

“He senses a certain receptivity in her expression, like she’s gathering information about his feelings, something they have learned to do to each other over a long time, like speaking a private language.”

The second half takes a darker turn. Marianne and Connell experience individual setbacks, and their relationship founders in a way that made me question for the first time whether they would actually end up together, or be driven apart drastically altered. While it was fun to see bits of myself in the characters’ thoughts and impressions in that first half- even the unpleasant ones, the feelings of being rejected and bullied and the regret for the lasting impact of hasty decisions- the resonance of the second half took me to some bleaker places. I still connected with Marianne and Connell in turns, but their depressions and experiments and general despair removed any semblance of sweetness from the story. My life is nothing like Marianne’s or Connell’s, and yet their thoughts are so accessible- perhaps too accessible. The second half of the novel left me so sad and heartbroken.

“He knew that the secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along, and worthless.”

Normalcy is a goal people strive for, that they cry about in the dark when it seems unattainable. Normal People shows both that everything is normal, and that nothing is. Every human experience is as valid as the next, and every experience is unique to a specific person. So many of the details are different, and yet so many of the feelings we have about them are the same. It’s a simple and astounding message that seems at once obvious and ground-breaking.

“I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.”

But before I get too philosophical (or maybe I already have), let me end by saying that Rooney is a master of showing-not-telling, that Normal People is one of those gems of a book in which the reader can know so much more than the characters are able to see. Though the detailed descriptions of Marianne and Connell’s actions and reactions may seem boring and long-winded to some, Rooney is clearly in full control of her themes and the unspoken motivations driving her characters. This is a novel of identity that many will relate to, and I for one was completely engrossed in both the specifics and the underlying messages of this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Sally Rooney is an incredibly skilled writer, though her style won’t be for everyone. Personally, I loved it, but I just can’t say I had a 5-star experience with a book that made me as sad as this one did. And yet… I am awed by Rooney’s ability to take me through the full spectrum of emotions and keep me engaged throughout. When I finished this book, I felt like I’d been having a conversation with Rooney that had been interrupted by a sudden “The End,” and I knew I had to read more of her work. I’ve got Conversations With Friends on hold at the library and will be reading it in a week or so, and I’ll probably also be picking up whatever Rooney publishes next.

More of my Man Booker reviews: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Sabrina, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite book that made you sad to read?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Sabrina

11th (out of 13) for me in the Man Booker longlist was Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the prize. I was interested in picking this one up much sooner but had some difficulty with availability. I read this book in early November.

sabrinaAbout the book: Sabrina is murdered on her way home one night, and her family’s grieving is interrupted by media and the masses as those who hear the news try to “solve” Sabrina’s death themselves. But public opinion and truth do not always align; Sabrina’s boyfriend and the friend he’s staying with after the tragedy learn firsthand the extremes that people will go to in an attempt to make sense of wide-spread confusion, horror, and fear.

“We are now thoroughly desensitized. It’s as if these guys are trying to outdo each other for our attention.”

I’ve not read many graphic novels. A graphic memoir, a few serialized comics, and Sabrina is the extent of my experience with highly illustrated stories. While I do enjoy them, I enjoy words a lot more– so I might have been a bit biased before I even opened the cover of Sabrina.

Right away, I knew the art style was not going to win me over. On one hand, the rather shapeless character drawings made it easy to project this situation into the real world because the characters aren’t too defined and stuck on the page. There is no detraction from Drnaso’s themes by prettiness or ugliness of characters, or elaborately detailed backgrounds. But on the other hand, the characters are so simply represented that at times it can be difficult to distinguish which is whom, especially between characters that are dressed alike. Having to wade through the art to find the story feels counterproductive.

Though I think the messages of this book are important, I did know from early reviews the basics of the premise and the “point” of the story, which perhaps contributed to my lack of shock while reading. There’s some interesting irony in the fact that having read a few reviews of this graphic novel before starting it myself perhaps lessened the impact for me– much as Sabrina demonstrates that an influx of horrible deaths in the news can desensitize a person, I think I was somehow desensitized to those disturbing messages. It’s a strong concept that I appreciate and will remember, but I think it would’ve been a more impactful reading experience if I hadn’t known what to expect going in.

“When the hysteria subsides, this video is destined to be another relic that we will never truly understand. A new tragedy presents itself before we can make sense of the last. Why does this keep happening, and who keeps doing this to us? I wish I could strangle their collective necks and be done with it, so we could build our utopia in peace.”

As humans, aren’t we entitled to the grief and shock and outrage and disbelief that occurs when another human being is murdered? Sabrina doesn’t refute that premise as much as it suggests there must be a way– and we need to find that way as soon as possible– to distinguish between appropriate and hurtful ways to express those emotions. We are entitled to feel, but not to make assumptions or encourage others to feel any particular way about the human condition.

It’s a powerful and widely applicable message. We are dealing with an influx of terrible deaths in the news. But the messages far overbalance the plot, which is why I’ve been pretty vague about specifics in this book. It’s best for you to discover them yourself.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a quick afternoon read with some great relevant commentary that’s horrifying in its reality. Jury’s out on whether I’ll read Dranso’s previous graphic novel, Beverly. But I will certainly be rounding out my longlist reading experience– I’m halfyway through Rooney’s Normal People now (and absolutely loving it), and am hoping to read Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City before the end of the month, which will wrap up the 2018 Man Booker nominees. Even though every longlisted book hasn’t been a 5-star read for me, it’s been a 5-star reading experience.

My previous Man Booker reviews, in descending order of favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite graphic novel? I could definitely use some suggestions!


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Overstory

Reading the Man Booker longlist this year has been more rewarding than I could have imagined (I’m almost finished– two left), even though I thought the shortlist was surprisingly underwhelming. The last book from the shortlist that I read this October was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I picked this one up shortly after the winner announcement, with fairly low expectations but a lot of curiosity.

theoverstoryAbout the book: A diverse array of characters experience life-changing events relating to trees. One man is saved by a tree when he falls out of the sky, but one boy is badly injured when he falls from another. For a few characters, trees are family heirlooms or traditions; for others, trees are neglected until a bad stroke leaves little else of life available. Over their lifetimes, these characters’ lives intersect, joining or clashing with each other. But across each journey, the characters come to realize that humans are dangerous for trees and that something valuable is being lost in the clear-cutting of ancient forests and farming of quick-growing replacements in the name of progress. These characters learn that trees have voices and instincts that most people are unaware of, and there might be a lot more at stake than simple wood.

“Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

” ‘My life’s work is listening to trees!’ “

I must admit, I often skim over descriptions of nature and landscape when I’m reading novels. The appearance of the setting is one of the least important parts of a story for me, and I have no problem creating a viable image of a story’s world in my own head– the method I prefer for visualizing, unless there are certain aspects to a setting that I would not invent accurately on my own (as in fantasy or futuristic elements). So when I learned that The Overstory is a long novel all about nature and landscape and trees, I thought, “Oh no, I’ll be tempted to skip over half of the information and then I won’t be able to understand or enjoy the rest of it.” It was the only book on the longlist that I didn’t really want to read, but I knew I would not be able to leave one book unread when I’ve gone to the effort to read all twelve others. Also saving my least-anticipated for last seemed like a depressing way to end what has otherwise been a great list. So I picked up The Overstory.

And I was pleasantly surprised. The human characters are present enough from the start that I had no trouble tolerating all of the trees in their lives. And what’s more, the trees themselves are fascinating. Apparently there are a lot of kinds of trees with unique properties or histories that are actually interesting and largely unknown– at least to me. The Chestnut blight. The clearing of trees even in small parks. The difficulties of living 200 feet above ground-level in an ancient Redwood. The possibility that trees communicate. Interesting stuff, and it’s not all about how green the leaves and how strong the trunks and how many the branches. For about two-thirds of the novel, The Overstory really held my attention.

“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”

But as the most enthusiastic characters began to drift away from their tree passion, to question it, or to give up hope that they could do anything to help the situation, my interest waned toward the end. If even the staunchest of these tree huggers are losing their nerve, how can they convince me to stay invested?

I also felt that the resolution was a bit unsatisfactory. Each of the story’s threads do come to some end, but I still had so many questions. The final chapters for each of the characters came as a surprise and left me wondering why there wasn’t more. More importantly, those final chapters upset some of my earlier assumptions, leaving me wondering whether the point of the novel is to raise awareness that we’re going to have a shortage of trees if we keep going at the rate we are,  or move readers toward activism in saving trees, or even just to suggest that humans can do what they will to the world but the world will bounce back and outlast us all.

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will loose by winning.”

There were also a lot of romances (all hetero as well, which was kind of disappointing) that counteracted some of the tree commentary. There were several times I wondered whether this character or that character was truly acting for the trees, or for their partner. Advocating for trees because you love a person does not convey quite the same message as characters advocating out of appreciation for the trees themselves. I didn’t need all of the characters to tie together so neatly that they all needed to be paired off with one another, and found their romances rather unnecessary and frustrating in general.

“You’re worth more to me than all the forests this outfit can slaughter.”

But even though I was left uncertain and somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, I can’t deny that I learned a lot while reading this book and that it made me look at the natural world in a new light. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was never bored. The Overstory is a long book with a high risk for tedium, and I don’t doubt that there will be readers who simply can’t stand all the tree talk. But Powers is an intelligent writer who doesn’t get lost in the scope of such a vast topic, and I think his place on the shortlist was well-deserved.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. For most of the book, I was blown away by how much I cared about the trees and their human advocates/acquaintances, but the ending wasn’t strong enough to maintain that momentum. I am glad that I read it, and for a 500 page book about trees it was a faster and more engrossing read than I expected. If it had come together a little more definitively at the end, this might have been a surprising favorite for me from the longlist. But alas.

More Man Booker reviews in order of descending favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ll also have a review of Sabrina coming up next week.

Have you read any books from the shortlist? Which was your favorite?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Milkman

I’ve been reading the Man Booker longlist this year, and had the good fortune to be reading Anna Burns’s Milkman when it was announced as the 2018 winner in mid-October. That was a fun experience that I was not entirely expecting. I still had one book left on the shortlist at that time in addition to half of Milkman, so I wasn’t even ready to make an informed guess about who the winner might be. Now that I’m ready to reflect… I’m so glad this book won.

milkmanAbout the book: Middle Sister prefers avoiding the troubled times she lives in by reading novels from centuries past– reading even while she’s walking, as a distraction from the present world. Unfortunately, the other members of her community do not see her reading-while-walking as a suitable form of self-defense, and as she becomes more difficult for them to understand she also becomes a target of their cruel gossip. Soon everyone is saying that Middle Sister is having an affair with Milkman, and so many are so vehemently on board that Middle Sister seems to have no choice left but to give in to Milkman’s demands. As she learns firsthand how hard it can be to make people listen rather than assume, she also discovers that some of her own assumptions have long been incorrect, and that she is just as much to blame for shutting out the truth as anyone else.

“I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain and to win over all those gossiping about me. So I’d kept silent, I said. I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to ground and protect myself.”

Before I talk more about the plot, I want to take a look at the unique writing style Burns uses in this novel because I think that will be the element that makes or breaks this novel for many readers.

The writing is full of placeholder names for places and people, nouns-turned-verbs, and objects that all but become their descriptions. The sentences run on and on in a manner very similar to (though not quite, in my opinion, actual) stream-of-consciousness narration. Paragraphs go on for pages, chapters seem never to end. I am usually a reader drawn to short paragraphs and short chapters myself, but something about the narrator’s voice in Milkman succeeded in pulling me in, and those long sentences made it nearly impossible to let the book go. “Just one more paragraph” turned into an excuse to read a few more pages, and enough was never enough. The ease of distinguishing characters by their relation to the narrator or other inherent characteristics seemed like a convenient way to get right to the meat of the story without bothering with all the fancy window dressing usually required to bring a fictional world to life. For all of Milkman’s long-windedness, it is not a novel stuffed with surplus. Names and world building are important, yes, but not so much in Milkman. Instead of dwelling on what other books set up as required background, it skips over what it doesn’t need to get right to the point.

“Some too, would make mention of the actual word ‘rumour’, as in ‘Rumour says’, before going on to personify rumour, as if it wasn’t they who were launching or perpetuation Rumour themselves.”

The point. Middle Sister’s affair (or not) with Milkman. The way her community forces her hand, though they’re still there to save her when she needs it. This is a book about community, about assumption, and about individual truths. The basics of the plot are given away in the first paragraph; the rest of the novel is spent examining how such a strange and horrible situation could occur, and the escalating sense of Middle Sister’s isolation even while (because) she seems to be the first topic on everybody’s mind. Burns may take the scenic route through this novel, but she never loses track of where she’s going, and the answers she provides is worth the time spent searching for them– but if you’re one of the lucky readers (like me) who can fall completely in love with Milkman‘s style, you’ll enjoy the journey to the answers just as much.

“I wasn’t sure anymore what was plausible, what was exaggeration, what might be reality or delusion or paranoia.”

Let’s not overlook the other characters. Burns does a fantastic job of bringing in each player’s story at just the right time, referencing it ahead of time to pique the reader’s interest, but only giving the details when the scaffolding of the main story is ready for that extra layer. When I think a book is well-written, I often say the writer exercises a great command of language. In this case, though Burns certainly knows her way around words, what she has most command of here is the bundle of threads that make up the main plot, divided into individual strands of smaller character arcs. She weaves the characters in and out of Middle Sister’s story without ever seeming to lose track of any of the filaments that bind them all. I will remember Tablets Girl and Nuclear Boy and Real Milkman and First Brother-in-Law for a long time, to list a few.

And if you are one of the lucky readers who completely jives with Burns’s writing style, there’s the humor to appreciate, too. Most of the themes and morals of this book are ominous and serious, reflecting on the poor ways humans treat one another, especially as part of a larger group. But even so, Burns has an ironic sense of humor that goes to the heart of what people understand but don’t say, and it invariably lightens the mood. This line was my favorite:

“She admonished him, saying ‘I think I hate you,’ which meant she didn’t because ‘I think I hate you’ is the same as ‘probably I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t know if I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t hate you, oh my God, my love, I love you, still love you, always, always have I loved you and never have I stopped loving you’. “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was immediately hooked in the first pages, but then I wavered for a while on whether or not the style was truly working for me. By 50 pages, I was hooked again, this time for good. The book worked for me, entirely. I cannot list a single flaw. I can, however, see myself rereading Milkman, and I’m certainly more interested in reading backlisted Booker Prize winners after enjoying this one as much as I did.

Other Man Booker reviews (in order of descending favoritism): Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ve also read The Overstory and Sabrina, and will have reviews for those up soon!

Have you read this year’s Man Booker winner? What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Long Take

I picked up this Man Booker shortlist title in early October, hoping to finish at least the shortlist before the winner was announced. Spoiler: I didn’t quite. But I did enjoy the time I spent with Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, the only poetic narrative from the longlist.

thelongtakeAbout the book: Walker leaves Europe a changed man, unable to return to his Canadian home after the war. He writes to his parents and the girl he loved, but doesn’t go back to Nova Scotia to reunite with them. Instead he finds lodging and work in America’s cities, sampling mainly New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In these places he tries to make sense of what he’s seen and what is left for him in post-war life, but he makes his home in a place that is falling apart, finding friends with similar post-war troubles who are being dragged down right along with the vanishing streets they inhabit.

” ‘…got shot up good.’ / ‘And welcomed home as a hero, I bet.’ / ‘Yeah. Just look at us now: two heroes in a hostel on Skid Row.’ “

The Long Take is a novel of sorts, told in verse but still a longer cohesive narrative. The plot is fairly simplistic, but as I went into this book expecting poetry I didn’t mind that the language took precedence over story arc.

The story is told through separated passages of prose that are each complete pieces in themselves. The writing style is consistent throughout, though some of the passages portray different things. Most of the narrative is composed of Walker’s present experiences (or recent past if the reader is to understand that he’s writing them himself in the aftermath). But there are also passages of dreams, and of flashbacks to scenes from Walker’s war experiences. There are notes he writes to send home, and memories of time spent with the girl he can’t bear to let see him again. It took me a few pages to know for sure what was what, as there are no labels to distinguish all of these parts, but it’s fairly easy to pick up on the distinctions and follow them through the book. 

Before I go beyond structure, let me mention that I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m especially behind in modern poetry, so I’m probably not the most knowledgeable critic for this book. But I can talk about the reasons I enjoyed reading it, and the biggest of those is the wording.

“He woke suddenly and turned around, but the door of the dream had / closed behind him. Scrabbling at the surface he could find no handle, no / handhold, to let him back in to his childhood, to the bar at the end of / the world.”

Do you ever read a passage so striking that you have to stop and go back to read it again, slowly, to savor it? I do, sometimes even with individual words that just sound unusually nice in my head. Though The Long Take was pretty easy to read and understand at a normal reading pace, I read it pretty slowly because I loved Robertson’s sentences and smaller word combinations. The style was just an all-around good fit for me, and that was the biggest contributor to my enjoyment here.

I also had a clear picture of each of the cities in my mind, which is something that honestly doesn’t happen for me very often in novels. I’m so much more invested in the characters and plot that setting is just sort of a foggy background blur that’s only present enough to give me an idea of the characters’ lives within it. But with The Long Take, I felt a familiarity with these cities I’ve never visited, even though they’re portrayed in another time period. The settings in this book are as essential as the characters, the settings are characters themselves, and those are the only settings that really make an impression on me. When I think of Los Angeles, I will think of The Long Take.

Furthermore, I was hooked on the PTSD and general deterioration aspects. They gave the book a sense of doom, which is an atmosphere that always keeps my attention pretty well. The tragedy that is post-war civilization was the only part of the book that I engaged with emotionally; Walker did what was asked of him, but didn’t find much help dealing with any of it afterward. The world takes and takes, and only seems to give to those who already have. That’s universal, which bridged the fact that I haven’t seen much of war firsthand.

“The papers say / ‘Keep dogs and cats inside on the Fourth of July’ / but nothing about ex-servicemen. / You can’t get tanked enough to block / the fireworks’ whine, their / door-burst slam, the rustling / shiver as they fail, fissling away.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I picked this up when I needed a break from novels, and not expecting to love it. I think the lower expectations helped make this an enjoyable reading experience for me, but I don’t think my appreciation for it was entirely circumstantial. I just like words, and Robertson seems to be one of those writers who has a great relationship with words. They just work for him. I was not surprised that this one didn’t win the Man Booker Prize, but it will certainly stick in my mind for a while. I might even read it again.

Other Man Booker reviews in order of most to least favorite: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. (I’ve also now read Milkman, The Overstory, and Sabrina with reviews for those coming soon!)


The Literary Elephant

Review: Washington Black

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black was my 7th Man Booker longlist title (of 13), and my 3rd read from the shortlist (of 6). So I’m officially halfway through. Washington Black was just released in the US last week, so I chose this one next based on availability.

washingtonblackAbout the book: Wash is a young slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados. His life is hard, but he’s got a friend, and he will follow where she leads. At least, until the new master’s brother visits, and selects Wash as his new assistant in scientific endeavors. Removed from the life of a field worker, new opportunities open for Wash– though he is still another man’s property. Titch is against slavery morally, but his attempts to remove Wash from hideous treatment in the sugar fields does not necessarily lead Wash to a better life. Circumstances lead Titch to escape Faith in a flying ship– a “Cloud-cutter.” Wash leaves with him, beginning a grand and terrifying journey through a harsh world that shows little respect for him, no matter how learned Titch has made him.

Washington Black is one of those books that I was happier to reach the end of than I was during any point while reading. The first section is a promising introduction to the story, detailing life on the Barbados plantation and ending with the odd pair– Titch and Wash– setting off through the sky in their own invention. But from there, the story wanders a bit aimlessly as years pass before Wash finds a sort of goal to work toward as well as the additional emotional complexity of a forbidden love. But much of the middle sections– indeed, much of the entire book– relies on telling rather than showing, as Wash seems to be relating his adventures from some point in the future. From this perspective, Wash notes moments of confusion or misunderstanding in his younger self, though he offers little in the way of explanation or growth that he may have gained through further experience.

“I was young and terrified and confused, it is true. But it is also true that the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years.”

I had two main issues with this book, issues that indicate this simply wasn’t the right book for me rather than that the novel is flawed. First, this is a very specific story. The events of Wash’s life are probably not events that have happened to any other people or characters ever in existence– and I found little to relate to or to learn from such specificity of experience nearly 200 years past. It’s not a broad look at culture or personality so much as a close-up of one man’s suffering. Some of the underlying messages might apply more widely, but the generalization of the underlying messages was my other issue with this story– I didn’t find that Washington Black had anything new to say on the injustices of slavery it highlighted. A white man taking credit for a black man’s work. A black man taking the blame for a white man’s actions. A white man trying to end slavery at least for one child, by giving him tools the world will not allow him to use. These are important pages in history, but I’ve encountered them before, in other stories. I found it frustrating to read such a unique tale to find only familiar morals.

“I felt Titch was trying to liberate himself from me. And again he would do it under the guise of granting me safety.”

But there is no mistaking the competency of Edugyan’s prose or the intelligence behind her words. There are bits and pieces of this story that will stay with me long after the plot fades, abstract ideas and emotions.

“There was but a thread between life and death, and he had stumbled blamelessly onto the wrong side of it.”

I’ll also remember the scientific aspects of the story: primarily the cloud-cutter and Ocean House. I didn’t look too closely at the premise of Washington Black before diving in, but with such a focus on science so early in the story I was hoping for something a little more zany, like The Underground Railroad. I knew there was no magical realism aspect to Washington Black, but I was disappointed with how quickly the cloud-cutter seemed to fade from its pages. I think the biggest failure of this novel is its hesitance to follow the science to more adventurous conclusions; Edugyan introduces some fascinating concepts, but lets them linger in the background of Wash’s life as he turns his attention instead to the scientist: Titch.

I probably would never have read this book if it hadn’t turned up on the Man Booker longlist the year that I decided to read every nominated book. Its spot on the shortlist led me to pick it up even sooner. But because I did find and read it because of the Man Booker longlist, I can’t help but compare my experience reading it to my similarly disappointing experience with Warlight. Though I preferred Ondaatje’s prose to Edugyan’s, I was pleased that Edugyan offered more directionality of narrative– and yet despite these minor differences, I spent much of my time with both books waiting for a reason to care about the main character and closing the book in the end without any real sense of connection.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t regret having read this book, but I don’t think I’ve gained anything from reading it beyond crossing off another title on my trek through the longlist. My goal is to finish reading the shortlist before the winner is announced (I still have The Overstory, Milkman, and The Long Take to read), and then wrap up the longlist titles I have left (Sabrina, Normal People, and In Our Mad and Furious City). Next up for me will be The Overstory, which is really the only title I have left that I have doubts about enjoying. If I can get through that one, I should have no trouble with the rest.

In lieu of further recommendations, I’m linking the rest of my Man Booker reviews (so far) here, in order of favoritism: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, and Snap.

Is there a book you’re glad you read even though you didn’t enjoy reading it? Why did you feel that way?


The Literary Elephant