Sunday, 21 October 2007

Man Booker

2007's Man Booker Prize was announced this week. Much to C's surprise, it was the finalist that she liked least (Enright's The Gathering). Too much the classic depressing Irish novel. With that domestic assessment, I've neither read it, nor will. I have, however, recently read two of the other finalists.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid takes the form of an extended conversation between two strangers over a traditional dinner in Lahore, Pakistan. Actually, it's really only one side of the conversation, that of a young Pakistani man regaling his dining companion with the story of his previous life in the United States, and how, post-September the 11th, this life unraveled and he returned to Pakistan.

The title of the novel would appear to relate to how the man went from being someone almost proud to be an adopted American, to someone who may harbour less than friendly intentions toward it. On this latter point, the novel is somewhat ambiguous on how far the central character has gone. His dining companion is an American man, who may even be a government operative, but much of the description here is sketchy.

Structurally, the novel generally works really well, with the conversational tone succeeding in portraying the central character quite warmly. That he's always extremely polite certainly helps make him engaging. The life history that he describes is also told in quite a compelling fashion, with two strands, the professional and the personal, woven well together. The first strand documents his rise from a scholarship at Princeton to a job with a prestigious management consultancy, while the second describes his parallel infatuation then budding, if doomed, relationship with a female friend.

My only complaint with the novel is that its ending seems rushed, and is might be seen as a little too ambiguous as a result. The narrator's journey from wannabe-American to possible anti-American fundamentalist happens over a rather short period of the novel, and only describes his present life in Pakistan in a somewhat sketchy fashion. And, after spending almost the whole novel having dinner, things pick up rather too quickly in the final few pages. The ending could be read in a number of ways, at least partially because there's very little time to develop or describe what happens.

Still, I really enjoyed this one. Though its shortness will doubtless have helped there!

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, while otherwise completely different, again takes the form of a story narrated by a single character. The novel describes near-present day events on a small Pacific island torn apart by what appears to be a local conflict. The narrator is a 13 year old girl, part of a community consisting mostly of women and children, since the men are all off fighting. To give the children some semblance of an education, and to keep them occupied, the village arranges for classes to be given by a strange white man who lives among them. This man, Mr. Watts, uses Great Expectations as a framework for his lessons, first reading it to the students then, later, having them reconstruct it from their memories.

Again, one of the strengths of this novel is the central narrator. Her 13 year old world is quite brought to life, and her gradual absorption into Great Expectations is handled very convincingly. The conflict the girl encounters between the reality of Mister Pip from the novel and the reality of the God that her mother unflinchingly teaches about is a particularly believable and interesting idea (which, given my predilections, is obviously likely to appeal to me). It sets up a dynamic that makes later events all the more poignant.

All that said, there are a small number of elements that don't entirely stack up for me. Firstly, the horrific denouement of the island conflict occurs extremely quickly which, while not unrealistic, isn't emotionally satisfying to my mind. The extreme violence is offset by its brevity which seems to take something away from it. Bad things happen but, almost before you know it, the novel has moved on.

Secondly, the novel goes into fast-forward towards the end. The narrator escapes the island and, in a matter of pages, is reunited with her father, grows up and apart from him, leaves for university where she later completes a thesis on Charles Dickens, and then visits key locations from Great Expectations on a trip to England. Then, finally, she tracks down the first wife of Mr. Watts, but the novel provides surprisingly little context for this and flits away all too quickly. What seems like a meeting designed to illuminate earlier events neither establishes very much nor pointedly fails to establish much either (i.e. the narrator doesn't make a big play about the opacity of the lives of others, et cetera).

Despite these shortcomings, Mister Pip was still well worth reading for the quality of the writing. I'm almost certainly being too harsh, expecting a tidy or trite ending which, were the author to have written it, I'd have complained about.

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