Booker Prize winner
by Jennifer Bryce
Today the winner of the Booker prize was announced: Damon Galgut’s The Promise.
Whereas last year, I predicted the winner (Shuggie Bain), this year I was less certain. I haven’t read the complete list of books but there were a couple from the long list that didn’t make the short list that, when I read them earlier this year, I’d thought might be contenders.
Congratulations to South African writer Damon Galgut!
I hadn’t read Damon Galgut before and was intrigued by his way of changing point of view even, sometimes, within a sentence. I discovered that this device is very effective in taking you right inside a character.
The book is set in South Africa during the transition out of apartheid – a small farm near Pretoria where a white South African family gradually disintegrates. With each death that occurs over roughly 10-year intervals the house is more decrepit and the family members less purposeful. Before his wife dies (and she is the first to go) the husband promises that the black maid, Salome will be granted the deeds to the house she has occupied over the many years of her faithful service. Amor, the youngest child, overhears this exchange between her parents and every time (with a death) there is discussion of inheritance, she brings up the matter, which is quietly ignored. Ultimately – Amor is the last surviving family member – the deeds can be passed to the elderly Salome. But now they may be worthless, as black Africans are making claim to land that was originally theirs. However, we learn that Amor – who is rather reclusive and out of touch of the family – has been entitled to payments over the years from her father’s business. She has not claimed any of this money and when she is the sole surviving family member she is in a position to hand the considerable amount of money to Salome.
On this blog I’ve discussed two other books that were short listed: A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam and no one is talking about this, by Patricia Lockwood. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, also discussed on this blog, didn’t make it to the short list.
The other book I’ve read that was shortlisted is Nadifa Mohamad’s The Fortune Men. At the time I thought it one of the best Booker short-listed books I had read . The book is based on the actual story of the last man to be hanged in Cardiff Prison, in 1952. He was Mahmood Mattan – a Somali seaman who had married a local Welsh girl and they’d had three boys. She had kicked him out of the marital home for his constant debt – on land, he didn’t have a steady job, he was occasionally lucky with horse-racing. Because of his situation he was a petty thief, but he was not a murderer. And the love between Mahmood and his wife was strong despite her frustration at lack of money. He was a doting father.
Prejudice against people of colour was strong in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff in 1952. When a shopkeeper, Violet Volacki is murdered, evidence is fabricated and Mahmood is arrested and brought to trial. He knows he is innocent and for a long time he assumes that the truth will save him. In prison he reflects a lot on his past life, treasuring memories of his mother and he comes to see that his life is ‘as fragile as a twig underfoot’ and he sees that he could become ‘the devil they always took him for’. But for most of the time he has a flawed confidence in the truth. The best writing is the descriptions of Mahmood’s time in gaol – all written from his viewpoint. The book drags a little with descriptions at the beginning and, given that Mahmood was not the killer, and the book is about him, it is probably not necessary to go in so much detail into the life and family of the murdered woman. Nevertheless, at the end one is confronted with the brutality and finality of capital punishment – particularly in this case where Mahmood was wrongly convicted largely because of the colour of his skin.
Books from the long list that I’ve read are Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace and Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual. I particularly liked the latter two.
I hadn’t read any other work of Rachel Cusk, and it is frustrating to find that there are various assumptions about this. I assume when I pick up a novel I can concentrate on reading it from cover to cover without having to stop and refer to other sources. Naively, I read Second Place from cover to cover – there was some obscurity, but the main irritation was that the narrator kept addressing a person called Jeffers and, within the covers of the novel, we never found out who he was. Ah – but later, I read that Cusk based this book on an account of a time when D.H. Lawrence stayed at an artists’ colony in New Mexico – Jeffers is a poet encountered here. The ‘second place’ is a guest house on the property owned by M, the character I guess you would call the protagonist. M lives on this remote marshy seaside place with her kind and usually compliant second husband, Tony. Her own 21 year-old daughter and boyfriend are also staying there. M seems to like to have artistic people around – for stimulation? And she has invited L, an artist she encountered in Paris and whose work had made a deep impression on her. Is she in love with him? I assumed, at least at first, that it was a kind of love that drove M to go to considerable trouble to invite L, who eventually comes with young, talented and beautiful Brett in tow. L’s presence is both internally and externally disruptive. Sometimes M seems to be tormenting herself. Incidentally there are musings on mother-daughter relationships. In the end, L has a stroke and dies when he’s been re-housed in a Paris hotel. There is a note from L to M that says ‘you were right about quite a few things… I wish we could have lived together sympathetically. Now I can’t see why we couldn’t.’ The book is ‘a tribute’ to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir about D.H. Lawrence at the artists’ colony. I felt that I needed to have read that memoir in order to appreciate this novel.
In A Town Called Solace, Clara, Mrs Elisabeth Orchard and Liam — have each suffered tragedy. We learn very quickly about that of Clara; her rebellious sister Rose, has run away following a row with their mother.
Seven-year-old Clara attends school, but at home she spends every waking moment looking out of the window, willing Rose to return. Her only outlet is feeding Moses, a cat she’s looking after for their neighbour, Mrs Orchard, who is in hospital.
Gradually we learn the story of Mrs Orchard. She and her husband have no living children – she suffered numerous miscarriages and understandably but very inadvisably became attached to Liam, the neighbours’ son who had four sisters. She was ultimately driven to abduct him. Liam loved being with Mrs Orchard but of course was kept well away from her after the abduction – and she had to spend a year incarcerated.
Everything ties together. Mrs Orchard dies and leaves Liam her house, which is next door to Clara’s house – she feeds Mrs Orchard’s cat, Moses. Liam has kept in touch with Mrs Orchard. At the time of the story, his marriage has (perhaps inevitably) broken up. He has travelled to Solace to take possession of Mrs Orchard’s house. His initial intention is to leave by winter, but he’s drifting and at the end of the book it seems likely he will stay on in Solace. The book is very simply written – at first I thought it might be a YA novel. There is vivid description of small town life and a poignant description of realising you are about to die: Mrs Orchard ‘communes’ (though she isn’t religious) with her late husband, addressing him as ‘you’. It was a quick and easy read but left poignant feelings of loss and love.
Light Perpetual is a beautiful book. Inspired by a plaque Spufford sees when he walks to work at Goldsmiths College that commemorates a 1944 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Fifteen children were killed. The book commemorates these children’s ‘lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century’. The idea of writing about what someone might have been like had they lived is not new – but maybe this way of going about it is. The children in Spufford’s book are fictitious – he’s made up their names and the suburb of Bexford, where they grew up. The bomb explodes – seemingly in slow motion – then we are taken into a day in each child’s life 5 years later, 20 years later, 35 years later, 50 years later and finally 65 years later. Death of a Christian believer is described beautifully at the very end when schizophrenic Ben, now confined to palliative care, literally sees the light. And at the end of the book ‘Come, dust’ going into infinity – the same words used at the end of the first chapter that describes the 1944 bomb aftermath. I thought this book a potential winner. But I was wrong.