By Jean Baird | May 12, 2013

Recently a facebook friend linked me to a posting that Marina Endicott had made on her facebook page:

The word allowance can’t convey how much I’m enjoying this series by Jean Baird: also, I can’t decide if I want her to speed up or draw the thing out as long as possible. Or just to come read the books in my living room and talk about them as she drops them at her feet. I’d make her sustaining drinks and keep the fire built up.

Ah, shucks.

In the same week that Christopher Hitchens died I stumbled across an article he wrote for Vanity Fair Magazine in 1992:

Let’s be plain in our speech. The unstoppably inflating awards business exists to reward sponsors, to pacify egos, to generate sales, and to puff reputations. This doesn’t matter so much in the world of ads and artifacts, any more than it does in the world where you see the “hotel employee of the month” scowling at you from a reusable plastic frame as you drum your gnawed fingers at an abandoned (“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to serve you better”) reception desk. It does make a difference, though, in the world of letters, where it helps to establish a bogus hierarchy among the composers of fiction and nonfiction alike…

But it’s probably too late to stem the rush of mutual prizegiving, which supplies publicity and status to sponsors, free prestige to publishers, free money to authors, free handout copy to reporters, and free eminence to editors, as well as free certification and validation to readers who aren’t sure what is chic this year. The triumph of the meretricious is now unstoppable.

The full article, which is well worth reading, can be found here:



You may remember the name of James Wood, a juror for the Bookers in 1994. He’s the one (and probably not the only one) who swore he would never serve as a juror again, saying “prizes should mean nothing in literary terms.” Here’s a little note about Wood:

Wood is noted for coining the genre term hysterical realism, which he uses to denote the contemporary conception of the “big, ambitious novel” that pursues vitality “at all costs.” Hysterical realism describes novels that are characterized by chronic length, manic characters, frenzied action, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the story. In response to an essay Wood wrote on the subject, author Zadie Smith described hysterical realism as a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth…”

Keep that term in mind as you read the 2005 reviews.


Jury: Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Dinah Birch, academic and literary critic. Amanda Foreman, historian, author and professional juror! (From the Man Booker website: “In addition to her writing and public speaking, she has also served on a number of juries in the UK and the US including The Orange Prize, the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Book Award, and the Pen History Prize.”) Dan Stevens, actor, though he also has a university English degree. He has starred in many TV and movie adaptations from novels but it beats me how that would qualify him for this type of jury. Bharat Tandon, academic writer and reviewer.

Kazuo Ishiguro—Never Let Me Go VPL

The first novel I read from the 2005 short list was also tackled by Jean’s Booker Club. Here’s what happened:

There was general consensus that the first 50 to 100 pages make for pretty dull reading. The banal first person narration of Kathy H. perfectly fits her mundane life. The seemingly endless details about school, bad behaviour of students, etc., doesn’t make for riveting reading. Once you figure out that Kathy is a clone, as are all the other students at her school, bred for their organs which they will eventually donate to normal people, our attention picked up. In the end we concurred that the narration which never seems to lapse is the book’s greatest accomplishment, and also presents the reader with the biggest challenge. If the novel were not by Ishiguro, how many jurors would get past 50 pages?

Like other Ishiguro narrators, Kathy isn’t sure what is going on. The reader is left to sort it out, and in our discussion we established that we are still sorting it out. It is such a narrow reading path that the reader is forced to confront what is and isn’t there. The absence of information is as important as what Kathy tells us.

Ah, and who is the “us” that Kathy thinks she is addressing? Apparently other clones. She doesn’t know the “normal” world, how it works. And the novel forces the careful reader to reflect on the whole notion of normal. What is normal? Who is normal? What is normal behaviour? Etc.

The novel is not about rebellion. Although Kathy and her friends are destined to “completion”—what happens to a clone after several donations, i.e. death—they stay the course. They don’t consider running away, or complaining. They accept their prescribed destinies.

That lack of rebellion sparked a lot of discussion. (I use the word discussion loosely. We scream and yell and wave our arms. When six or more people are talking at once I slam the table and call for order.) If Kathy et al were cloned from real people, wouldn’t they rebel, even a couple of them? Well, maybe the cloning is selective. Maybe certain aspects of the DNA are removed, altered, etc.

The normal people of the novel are the guardians at the school. Near the end of the novel, after Kathy has left the school to become a carer, those clones who look after donating clones during recovery, Kathy visits her old guardian, Miss Emily. Miss Emily explains that the specific school Kathy attended was an experiment, an attempt to illustrate that the clones have souls. Miss Emily claims that her work made the living arrangement of the clones better. The guardians taught the children to produce art, then had shows of the best pieces in an attempt to persuade the establishment to give better treatment to the clones.

What sort of society would accept cloning people for organs? How could the religions ofsuch a society justify cloning for organs? Maybe by insisting that the clones have no souls? As readers, we have no evidence that we have souls so how can this be proven about ourselves, or others?

As you start to ask these questions the chilling aspect of the novel starts to take hold. Are we “normal” people in many ways similar to these clones? Do we share the false liberalism of Miss Emily—she and her staff of teachers illustrate the worst clichés about art. How much are we like clones, passively accepting the things we don’t like and following a narrow path? Do we live our lives as automatons? How are we managed? Do we passively accept the erosion of hope?

Aaron has taught this novel and he offered some additional insights that teaching can provide. He suggested that the novel had similarities to Frankenstein, a mash up of genres, with a mixture of voices and different registers of voices. Both novels expose the possibility that what science produces is not necessarily improvement—science can be wrong.

As we summed up I asked each person to respond to two questions. Did our discussion of the novel change or enhance your ideas of the book? And the usual, on a scale of 10 where 10 is a great book, how do you rank this novel?

On the scale of 10—7.5, 7, 7.5, 6, 6.75, 7.5, 7.8, 7.5 from the gang. George gave it 4, claiming to be a serious reader of science fiction. He suggested that work by Robert Heinlein is far superior. He found the technique obvious, as if he was watching the writer manipulate the reader. He said the discussion the book creates is not the discussion he’d want for one of his books, or the books he searches out to read. I gave it a 5 because I thought it was indulgently long for what it accomplished. It’s a showy experiment and too much of it is just plain boring. But from the group, the novel had a better response than most things we’ve read.

As for the discussion’s enhancing our individual opinions, again mixed response. Rex said the discussion softened his objections. Pauline said the discussion deepened her understanding of the novel. It sure helped clarify my position. But for the most part, my group said the discussion hadn’t significantly altered their opinions of the novel.


Ali Smith—The Accidental VPL

Another creative writing experiment from Smith. A stranger named Amber, in her early 30s, arrives at the summer rental home of a dysfunctional family—mother Eve is a B-list author with writer’s block, father Michael is a philandering academic, son Magnus is a 16-year-old mathematical virgin, and 12-year old Astrid prefers to see the world through a camera lens. It is never clear why the family lets Amber stay, but stay she does and over the summer they all become smitten with her in various ways. And she seduces all in various ways. Amber is quick to relieve Magnus of his virginity.

Stylistically it’s the same post-modern dialogue Smith used in Hotel World. Each chapter is seen through the eyes of one of the characters. And there is the same air of menace. Three sections—the beginning, the middle, the end. This novel is not intended to be representing reality—in the very end we are asked to wonder if Amber was just a ghost—but even so, whatever world these characters inhabit, their relationships are not persuasive. Yes, they are all stuck in their isolated worlds, but the relationship between the mother and the two children just doesn’t work at any level. The character is an idea of a mother, paper-thin.

One reviewer suggests this is Smith’s reworking of Pasolini’s 1968 film Theorem starring Terence Stamp. Stamp arrives at the home of a family, one by one seduces them, then leaves them in tatters. Perhaps, but if so the novel lacks the elegance of the film.

There is a running theme about cinema, film, photographs and all captured images. But I didn’t find those sections particularly interesting or illuminating:

Eve knew that something quite mysterious happened the more she looked at the pictures. She knew it was supposed to happen like that, that although these photographs were a signal to the eyes about something really happening, the more she looked at them the less she felt or thought.

The frustration of my reading experience was heightened by the fact that Smith really can write. After two novels I’m not persuaded she has much to say, and I don’t think the showing off ability to write in several different voices does much. The section where Michael pours out his feelings for Amber in various poetic forms is mostly embarrassing.


Zadie Smith—On Beauty VPL

Category: dysfunctional academics and their families.

About 30 pages into the novel things seemed familiar. I couldn’t remember reading this novel before, and even as I read through the next 50 pages and was convinced I had read it before, I had no memory of what was going to happen.

As Smith points out in her acknowledgements, the novel is indebted to E. M. Forster, specifically Howard’s End. Smith says the novel is homage. On Beauty shows the lives of two families with very different beliefs and social positions and how their lives become entwined—the device of Howard’s End. There are similar themes around class, familial relationships, parental relationships, and the nature of friendship, etc. But Smith adds the early 21st century issues of race, feminism, ethnicity, and affirmative action. The patriarchs of both families in the Smith novel are academics—one black, the other white but married to black American women. Both fathers are having sexual relationships with students and these relationships form part of the complicated discussions around anger/forgiveness, liberal belief/conservative belief, tolerance/judgment, and the “power of the inappropriate.”

It’s a complex and well-written novel, well worth the read. But I have a lot of complaints. There are far too many lengthy descriptive passages, often about the physical appearance of a character, or their clothing. Usually these descriptions add nothing to the novel, or knowledge of the character.

The editing is sloppy. Once in a while in any novel you’ll spot a typo and realize how it got overlooked. On Beauty had so many such errors that it became a distraction. When I came across the following line, page 345, “Erskine hung his head in cod misery” I had such low confidence in the editing that I’m not sure if cod misery is some term I don’t know, should it be cold misery, and how is that better, etc.

The hip-hop characters are not convincing, either in their mannerisms or dialogue. Smith seems to be grasping after a world she doesn’t know, except from a great distance.

Kiki is a black woman from Florida and Smith makes her the heart of the novel. But she also makes her obese, which seems a cliché. Although Kiki is from Florida her speech, cooking habits and wardrobe are more in fitting with a black woman from the islands.

The setting for most of the novel is a small university town near Boston, much like the real Harvard. But it’s just not convincing. Smith spent a year at a New England university but she doesn’t persuade me that she knows much about American life, or even American campus life.

The novel talks about “worlds that would not coalesce” and that is what Smith has done. The US part of the novel does not coalesce with the UK world, where she really does seem sure-footed.

The novel is very funny, particularly the scenes within the walls of the university. But the scope of this novel is too vast; see Smith’s comments above about hysterical realism.

Smith can write well and her first novel White Teeth was much acclaimed. The book won multiple honours, including the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award in category best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It’s hard not to wonder if On Beauty made the Booker short-list on the writer’s reputation rather than the strength of the novel.

Here’s an odd thing—one scene I did remember vividly but had not been able to connect to the specific novel until I reread On Beauty occurs when a female academic takes her students to a poetry reading. She watches as the young people order various menu items then “She did as she had done for thirty years. ‘Just the salad please, thank you.’” I don’t know why this scene stayed with me. Perhaps it is the accuracy of a woman who defines herself so much by her small stature, a lifetime of under-eating. In this instance, that moment, quickly captured, does nail the character.


John Banville—The Sea VPL WINNER

Jean’s Booker Club

We struggled with this novel. We all agreed that the first-person narrator, Max, is odious. The book isn’t much about plot—its focus is on story-telling, the nature of memory and how our memories (real, imagined or enhanced) create our present. Max’s wife of many years has died of cancer. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with their only child, a daughter. Max returns to the resort town of his childhood, where a trauma took place. For most of the novel Max is in the resort town, but the time shifts from present to past, quickly and frequently.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for our group was the language—the novel is over-written, full of clichés, too many adjectives, compounded adjectives. Deliberately, we wondered? Where is the line of separation between the author and the narrator? Why would Banville create such an unsympathetic character and then compound the reader’s dislike with excessive language? Is it a spoof; because it is very clear Banville is an accomplished writer.

The character of Max is an art historian who in theory is writing a book about Bonnard, though he doesn’t have much of it written. But the novel is full of comments about Bonnard’s art, and other art. Our group looked to Aaron, since Aaron is an art critic. Aaron argued that the voice of Max is not the voice of an art historian. He said Max writes phony art appreciation.

Before our Booker club meeting Aaron had sent me a wonderful rant: “So I’m reading The Sea, and I know this is a spoiler — viz., that we aren’t to discuss a book with anyone first, hence not sending it to the whole group, just you as I figure you’ve already read it — but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book I’ve disliked so much before. The whole author/speaker divide seems to be at issue here, particularly with the misogyny. But what’s with people saying this guy is astylista la Nabokov? Cliché-ridden, overwrought, flat prose. The sentences, so full of descriptive, concrete words, sometimes don’t even cohere into an image. The words dangle together, like cheap watches in a department store display. If anything I am enjoying the page-by-page indignation it inspires. At least one passage per page is so egregious that is demands to be read aloud. Still, I’m trying to get through it as quickly as possible so that I can move onto something better. Baffling in its sentiments. Does prose have a word equivalent to doggerel?”

Why, we all wondered, does Banville want us to dislike Max so much? And our dislike travels quickly from Max to the writer. What on earth is he up to? Has something gone wrong? Are British publishers afraid to edit? But that can’t be it, because this novel won the Booker. Why? Is this the sort of novel admired by what Pauline calls “an emotionally repressed culture”?

We pulled back, again, and took another run at it. Charlie suggested the novel might better be called The Light since that is as prevalent a motif in the novel as the sea. Yes, we agreed he might be on to something, that Banville is painting a canvas with words. Some of the sections we most admired, and there is writing and moments to be admired, are like images caught on film, mostly about memory and death. We also agreed that Max’s deep concern with improving his class position—he marries up—is compelling.

The sea surrounds Ireland, and it figures prominently in the country’s myths and memories—the sea is primordial. But our memories are not clear, not photographic (Max’s wife dabbles in photography as a contrasting way of showing the present, but it’s too stark a medium). Memories are filtered. Charlie pointed to the novel’s focus on shafted light.

So, what’s the point? It seems to be about how memory works, our expressed memory as well as sexual and sensual memory. Is it worth it? George, citing Beckett’s Unnamable as a 10, gave The Sea a 4. Aaron, noting Banville’s poor use of the Bonnard motif and citing Proust as his 10 gave The Sea 2.5. Charlie said he’d just watched Back to the Future and that’s his 10, but refused to vote because he hadn’t quite finished the novel—the last 5 pages reveal several if not all the significant plots details. But he did say that what he had read reminded him of a drunken movie usher, swinging his flashlight in the wind. The rest of us voted 2.8, 2, 3.5 and 4.

Rex was unable to attend but sent his remarks: I haven’t read any notes yet from the meeting last night, so will now reveal my pre-thought ideas about this book as post-talk:

I gave the book a generous 4.5 .. the point-five I added out of respect for the author trying to be creative and at least he wasn’t writing copy for a marketing agency. Or, was he?

I found The Sea to be too predictable. I knew within a few pages that we were going to get a big surprise historic memory moment at the end, and I thought: This better be good. It wasn’t. A woman loved another woman. wow. Underwhelmed. 

And the journey seemed mostly tedious to me, the author trying too hard to be post-modernish, and sort of pulling it off in a completely unadventurous manner without any new twist of style or vision. The unreliable, unlikable narrator thing just got tiresome for me.

So I gave it a 4 .. and then in a moment of sympathy for the artist, gave it a 4.5.

Judith replied, Rex, I found it interesting that, having already read The Sea some years ago, when I reread it I completely forgot his surprise plot twist ending, which Renee had to explain in the car on the way to Jean and George’s as I didn’t have time to finish it again. I knew that I HATED the book the first time (yes, I felt that strongly), I remembered the odious main character, the seaside setting, somewhat more dimly the very uninteresting Graces but mostly the murkiness of it, how irritatingly overwritten, how tedious most it was. However, when I reread it and found the occasional good phrase or insight I felt slightly less vehement towards Banville. I agree with something that Aaron said before we put our coats on, that he disliked The Sea so much it made him curious to read some of Banville’s earlier work.

Is Banville a talented writer who lost his way? Got lazy? It reminds me a bit of reading one of Timothy Findlay’s last books (not that their styles are anything alike), where on every second page the main character was opening yet another bottle of Wolf Blass. Seems the author’s own drinking had become his main theme. Perhaps Banville, drunk on his own adjectives, just let them take over the book, and then tacked on a bad whodunit ending, Mrs. Grace on the beach with Rose etc.. If that’s the way he handles plot in his detective novels I don’t want to read them. But would, say, his second or third novel, reveal what his reputation as a stylist is all about? Aaron, please read it and let us know.


Sebastian Barry—A Long, Long Way

In the first chapter with great economy Barry establishes the great sweeping nature of history, the large force against which the individual is eclipsed. The language and writing show Barry to be a stylist. He also has the ability to be sharp, focused and funny in his crisp presentation of characters. Willie “was as plagued as any other boy by desire, trying to put manners on the endless erection of his sixteen years.” Then a few pages later, after he has met and fallen in love with Gretta, “She wasn’t so wedded to the idea of his erection as perhaps he was.”

In chapter two Willie signs up as a volunteer, answering the call of Lord Kitchener. Willie does his training time then heads off to the infamous trenches of WWI. The writing remains unsentimental, mostly, as Barry focuses on the small human details rather than the blood and gore. There is certainly nothing glamorous or valiant in Barry’s detailing of this war. Told to take a message back to headquarters Willie responds to the terror of crossing no man’s land, littered with dead Germans and Irish, “clogging up the way under St Peter’s gate,” by shitting his pants. He delivers the message, smelling “like hell.”

Major Stokes was just staring ahead now. There was a little table in the corner of the destroyed barn with a cut-glass bottle on it that Willie just happened to notice at that moment. Whisky in it or the like, and three small red glasses beside it. It was like a fragment from another world, adrift in these confusions. He wondered what went on here between the three, what they would talk about when he went off again.”

There are moments of deep tenderness. Willie gets leave time and arrives home unexpectedly. His sisters rush to embrace them, but he shields himself and says he must bath, have his clothes washed and the nits removed before they can touch him. Their gruff father arrives and washes his son, carefully combing his hair, removing and squishing the lice.

The tension between Willie and his father is a dominant motif of the novel. The father is a policeman and chief superintendent so the family live at Dublin Castle while the father tries to keep order in the city for the King. Many young Irishmen signed up as volunteers because of the promise of Home Rule. At the end of his leave heading back to Belgium Willie gets caught in the Easter Uprising and sees Irishmen gunned down in his homeland.

I was not able to sort out the complicated nuances of Irish politics, and it is that approach to WWI for which this novel is praised. Of course, published in 2005 there is also the modern backdrop of Britain’s response to the post-911 world and the push to join the USA in its War Against Terrorism—a topic that is just as slippery as Ireland’s Home Rule.

I also found some of the plot devices pretty contrived. Willie’s Da is a policeman and dreams of his son following in his footsteps but Willie doesn’t attain the required six feet. Gretta’s Da is on the side of the Labour leader and has had his head smacked with a baton by the police—yes, the star-crossed lovers. One night with a bunch of his comrades Willie gets very drunk, ends up with a prostitute and a spiteful soldier writes Gretta about the betrayal, resulting in Gretta marrying another man. But these details may rankle because, as I’ve confessed before, I’ve reached a saturation point with war novels.


Julian Barnes—Arthur & George

George Ernest Thompson Edaliji is the son of a vicar who grows up to be a solicitor. George’s mother is Scottish and his father is Parsee. George is raised as an Englishman and faithfully answers his father’s question, “what is England?” with “England is the beating heart of the Empire.” George is dour, friendless and earnest.

Arthur comes from a poor family. His father is a drinker and constant source of trouble to the family. An uncle provides money for Arthur’s education and he grows up to be a doctor and the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Arthur is an adventurous athlete.

In his life Doyle was constantly being asked to help with real criminal cases. The only time he ever did was the Edaliji case. Edaliji was wrongfully charged and convicted. Barnes takes that real incident and spins a deeply compelling story. In part the writing is homage to Doyle and Victorian style. But it is also an attack on British superiority complex—apt in a post-911 Muslim-anxious age.

The publisher’s blurb: “With a mixture of intense research and vivid imagination, Julian Barnes brings into sharp focus not just this long-forgotten case but the inner workings of the two men and the wider psychology of the age. Arthur & George is a novel in which the events of a hundred years ago constantly set off contemporary echoes. It is a novel about low crime and high spirituality; guilt and innocence; identity, nationality and race; and thwarted passion. Arthur & George explores what we think, what we believe, and what we know.”

All that is true, but the novel is also richly funny. Why don’t publishers celebrate humour? Two examples.

Doyle’s response the first time he meets Jean, the woman who will eventually become his second wife:

He sits there, perched on the sofa’s edge, longing to concentrate on her words, her face, the date and the thought of snowdrops; but they are all driven out by the awareness that he has the most tremendous cockstand of his entire life. It is not the decorous swelling of a pure-hearted chevalier, it is a thumping and unavoidable presence, something rowdy, something living up to that word cockstand which he has never himself uttered but which is pressingly in his head. His only other thought is a relief that his trousers are loosely cut.

Doyle was interested in the spiritual world, as were so many Victorians. Edaliji attends the occasion (deliberately not called a funeral) that marked Doyle’s passing over into the spirit world. Mrs. Roberts, Doyle’s favourite medium also attends. There is a lengthy section of Mrs. Roberts’ comments as she tries to contact the spirits, and lists off those other spirits who are in attendance, all pushing for her attention.

George listens to the crowd of spirits being given fleeting description. The impression is that they are all clamouring for attention, fighting to convey their messages. A facetious if logical question comes into George’s mind, from where he cannot tell, unless as a reaction to all this unwonted intensity. If these are indeed the spirits of Englishmen and Englishwomen who have passed over into the next world, surely they would know how to form a proper queue? If they have been promoted to a higher state, why have they been reduced to such an importunate rabble?


John Sutherland, from The Guardian

When I chaired year 37, it more or less, as airline pilots say, flew by wire. The year was, by general agreement, a bumper one for fiction. As usual, no minds were much changed by the panel discussions – candidate B merely came forward when one judge’s candidate A was voted down. John Banville came out top with The Sea. King of the As and Bs. Teeth were gnashed in the press the next day; but they would be if Jesus Christ had written the winning novel. I spoke to Kazuo Ishiguro (shortlisted for Never Let Me Go) shortly after. “The goalkeeper jumped the wrong way”, he sportingly said. I wish I’d been quick-witted enough to rejoin “not even Petr Cech has to save five penalty shots all coming at him at once”. Julian Barnes, in an interview for the New York Times, was more savage (he had been shortlisted for Arthur & George). Not, he felt, a bumper year for judges. Perhaps he was right. But posterity will forget us. Barnes, Ishiguro and – I believe – Banville they’ll remember. And make their own judgments.



More from Jean Baird:

  • 2011

    Jean Baird reviews her favourite Booker novels and reports on the 2011 prize. Read more… 

  • 2010

    Jean Baird offers some advice about writing a prize-winning book and reports on the 2010 Booker Prize. Read more… 

  • 2008

    Jean Baird offers some advice to literary prize administrators and reports on the 2008 Booker Prize. Read more…