By Jean Baird | May 23, 2013

Jean’s Best of the Bookers

Well, here they are. Of the 255 novels I read for this project, here are the 20 I recommend. These are shortened reviews. If you want to see the whole thing check out Jean’s Booker Project on www.dooneyscafe.com


Barry England—Figures in a Landscape

Two escaped guys trek their way through an unidentified tropical landscape fighting nature and a helicopter opponent. There are no extra details. The book is grueling, tight, sharp, and raw. For years my favourite war book has been Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed (1930).Figures in a Landscape is as good, and as urgent though no war is ever mentioned. At times the tension in the book is almost unbearable. This was Barry England’s first novel. A remarkable debut. About 40 years later he published a second novel and is mostly known (if at all) for his plays. I don’t think this book should have been the winner but I suspect it will be the one I will remember the most vividly for the longest period of time. Apparently it was made into a film starring Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw.


J G Farrell—The Siege of Krishnapur

The book is about the siege of Krishnapur in 1857 during the Indian rebellion, and is a penetrating look at British Victorian values. Farrell takes on opium use and production, the righteous anger of religious zealots, the problems created by the Crimean war (not enough available young men, for one), the fad of phrenology, social structure, the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, medical procedures (in one scene two doctors with opposing beliefs regarding the treatment of cholera thrash it out), issues of ownership and property, beauty and art, materialism, science and industry. It’s a scathing attack of the dangers of belief in a superior culture. But it’s also funny, really funny.

It’s impossible to read this book without considering our own culture; as a reader there is no smug way out. It isn’t possible to feel superior to these characters—that trap has been exposed. Instead the reader is forced to consider the occupation of Iraq, the “war on terrorism” and the fight to bring democracy and capitalism to another culture, and the assumption that North America’s relatively new culture is better.

Iris Murdoch—The Black Prince. UBC

Bradley Pearson, the first-person narrator, makes Bertie Wooster looks like an emotional giant. Brad makes Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, appear to be an uncomplaining, unbrooding optimist. Remember the dolt of a narrator from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, John Dowell? Well, Brad makes John seem reliable. Okay, I’ll stop.

Divorced from his wife, half-heartedly going after his best friend’s wife (both Bradley and his best friend, Arthur, are writers, though the friend is more successful), rumored to be a closet homosexual who really loves Arthur, Bradley falls desperately in love with Arthur’s daughter. Bradley’s rambling about his feeling are almost unbearable to read. Do men talk like this? His sister, Priscilla is even worse.

But I’m onto Murdoch and I was looking for the twist at the end, though I couldn’t anticipate what it would be. She snuck up, and clobbered me, again. In this novel the ending almost forces you to start at the beginning again to see how she pulled it off.


V. S. Naipaul—A Bend in the River

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness first-person narrator Marlow tells the tale of Kurtz. This European view of Africa, or more specifically what we assume is the Belgian Congo, examines the impact of imperialism, the European fear of going native, light/dark, good/bad and the very notion of freedom. With Naipaul’s narrator, Salim, the reader is back to what again we assume is the Congo, and post-colonial psychosis. But A Bend in the River isn’t just an update, or validation of Conrad. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it might be. Homage, in part. But I think the word that best presents Naipaul’s relationship to Conrad is conversation.

In Naipaul’s novel, Africa, despite independence, is still defining itself through the eyes of Europe. But there are no more heroic or tragic whites—no Kurtz here. Salim is an Indian Muslim born on the coast of Africa—he is not Indian, not European, not African. He and his kind have become obsolete in the new Africa, no longer representing order and hope—Salim is part of the problem. And Europe no longer offers solutions. Naipaul’s vision is dark. Very dark.

Africa is not a sick child that can be fixed with money from abroad. The novel penetrates to the birthplace of civilization, if that word is even fitting in this novel. It’s like peeling off the layers of an onion, but the more layers you peel off, the bigger the onion becomes. “Africa, going back to its old ways with modern tools, was going to be a difficult place for some time.” In this novel there is no escaping “the horror”—we are all transients, “in time it would all go.”


Anthony Burgess—Earthly Powers

The novel begins, “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Wow, how’s that for an opener? I’ve read a fair amount of Burgess and this is the best.

Often when I’m reading one of these whoppers (this novel clocks in at 607 pages) I make notes as I’m reading, knowing I won’t be able to hold it all in my little brain. This novel is so huge in its scope, and meticulous in its examination I don’t know how Burgess could have held it all in his head at one time. But there is no sloppiness, no repetition, no chunks when you think, “this could have been edited down.”

The novel examines Catholicism, gay and lesbian lifestyles and rights, Nazism, black magic, Chicago gangsters, prohibition, and the general state of British literature in the 20th century—there are hundreds of stories, and parodies. Toomey is a popular novelist, not a great one, and he knows and regrets the difference (Toomey is based loosely on the life of Somerset Maughan, some P G Wodehouse). Highly subversive, including parodies and attacks on Burgess’s own work, particularly A Clockwork Orange.


Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot

Geoffrey Braithwaite is a doctor and amateur Flaubert expert (can you be an amateur expert? He is not a scholar and does not publish his extensive research) who is trying to determine which of two stuffed parrots in two separate museums is the one that was on Flaubert’s desk while he wrote Un coeur simple. Like many of the recent Booker novels it is part exploration of the past and how people fall over it “trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process.” And also the role of biography and the uncovering of information about the dead. My favourite parts are the romp through the absurdities of academic life and research.

Barnes takes the novel, turns it inside out, flips it on its head and forces reconsiderations of the genre and criticism. Get a copy and jump in, but don’t read anything on the book jacket. It might give away something.

J. G. Ballard Empire of the Sun

Jim is a 10-year-old boy with well-to-do British parents living a privileged life in before-war Shanghai. Jim is obsessed with planes. When the war begins Jim and his parents get caught in the melee of the attack, and are separated. Jim will spend the war, alone, in various camps.

In some ways the novel is reminiscent of Treasure Island, even sharing the name of the title character. Like Jim Hawkins, Jim becomes an Everyboy. He is a symbol of all children caught in war. And also like Jim Hawkins he learns that the pirates (in this case the Japanese) are not always the bad guys and are often better examples of courage than are the good guys.

But this is no straight-ahead fable. Jim’s coming of age is a complicated and twisted maturity. The war and world of this novel have nothing to do with bravery. It’s a mean and selfish survival. All are left scared. There are no clear victors.

What really sets this novel apart is the way the world is viewed through the eyes of a child, without anything childish. Perhaps it is Ballard’s experience with science fiction, his ability to portray other worlds that lends the power, but power it does have. At the end as the world settles into peace, Jim settles into his new reality—he is living WWIII.


I include this novel because the Icarus theme has shown up so often among the Booker candidates. This novel, in my opinion, is the best handling of that motif.

Nina Bawden—Circles of Deceit

The first chapter begins with “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden. I hadn’t read the poem in years so went online and looked at the painting. I’d describe the painting, but William Carlos Williams does it so much better in “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus.”

In some ways Bawden is trying to do with the novel form what the painting achieves—how life goes on despite and beside disaster. In the Brueghel, as Auden describes, Icarus is a small splash in the lower right corner—not the focus. In the novel, the nameless middle-aged narrator is a painter but he specializes in copying masters rather than producing his own work. His much-loved wife Helen confesses to an affair, which leads to petty fights and eventual divorce. The painter remarries a woman barely out of her teens who has a young and needy son, who she sometimes abuses. Here the Icarus character is Tim, the tortured schizophrenic son of the painter and Helen. The novel considers love, fidelity, guilt, nature of art versus forgery, how our own lives distort the larger picture and how hard it is to see beyond our own circle of deceit. More often than not, lies are told out of kindness rather than malice. Interesting idea, well executed and very readable. Understated rather than showy.

Peter Ackroyd—Chatterton

Just how much do poets stand on the shoulders of the poets who have gone before? Chatterton takes on that question by cleverly using one of the most famous plagiarists of the poetry world, Thomas Chatterton. What happens when a wayword poet appropriates the past? Ackyrod is arguing that the facts are of little importance—it is the artists who capture the past, not scholars. And each generation reinvents the past to meet the needs of the present. “Chatterton knew that original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which had never occurred before.”

Chatterton himself makes an appearance in the novel, explaining, “Thus do we see in every Line an Echoe, for the truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry.” Harriet Scrope is a well-known popular novelist. But in her early career, after her first novel, she couldn’t think of another plot. She stumbled across a little known late 19th century novel and used its plot. She did the same for another couple of novels until she started using her own material exclusively. She’s spent years worried that she would one day be found out. Since she eventually does her own work is it okay that she plagiarized in her early career?

What if, suggests the novel, Chatterton hadn’t died. What if his suicide was faked and that he actually wrote most of the famous poetry of the 18th century, the best of Blake? What a concept. But the concept of the novel is more intricate and clever than I can point to in this brief blurb. On the dust jacket a review from the San Francisco Chronicle, “One of those rare literary experiments that begins almost too clever for its own good and in the end not only justifies its cleverness but transcends it.” Sounds like review fodder, but in this instance I agree. With a cast of eccentrics that would shame Dickens, this book is funny and wonderfully written. And bonus, as a post-modern work it also challenges the scholarly theories about that art form, too.


Mordecai Richler—Solomon Gursky Was Here

In my head I can hear Richler saying, “Magic realism, eh? Okay, Rushdie, watch this.” In my opinion, the most ambitious and successful of Richlier’s novels, Solomon Gursky Was Here makes Illywhacker look bungled. Huge, romping, funny, irreverent, goofy and utterly readable—and that doesn’t mean easy. Often in Richlier novels the cast of characters seem carbon copies from other novels, and cliché. Not here. Shaman/Raven Ephraim and Bad Boy Solomon versus money-grubbing Bernard. The scope of the novel is huge, from Gold Rush, formation of the North West Mounted Police, Franklin expedition to the artic, London theatre scene, to penal Australia. And unlike Rushdie, Richlier builds and crafts the story rather than repeating and repeating. The narrative is not chronological, bouncing from 1920 to 1960 then back to 1940, but always with a new twist.

It has often been cited that the Gurskys are thinly disguised Brofmanns. And although the novel zooms the characters over the surface of the globe, bumping into anyone of note in the process from George Bernard Shaw to Golda Meir to Jackie Onassis, this novel is so Canadian, particularly the humour. Richlier infuses Canadian history with the Jewishness of the Gurskys. Eskimos mysteriously wearing Jewish sashes. Mystery, comedy, and who-done-it.


Christopher Hope—Serenity House

Max Montfalon is declining, his enormous house is too much so he makes a deal with his daughter and her ambitious politician husband—if they buy a new house with an apartment for him they get all his money. After 7 months the daughter is about to crack up dealing with her cranky and incontinent dad, so Max gets shipped off to Serenity House. The Lear overtones in the beginning are quickly taken over by black comedy, murder mystery, and anti-American themes—particularly the US media’s obsession with (glorification of?) death and killing.

The novel has a cast of eccentric characters, my favourite is Max’s granddaughter, a devotee of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or at least until she takes up a new fad. Max had been a doctor, then made a fortune through corporate takeovers. Cledwyn Fox is doing his best to administer a home for the aged in an increasingly competitive market.

The novel is deeply disturbing in its presentation of the industry and ugly commerce of aging and death. It’s both brutal and funny—a doctor who supports euthanasia pens a book titled The Joy of Passing. The novel is stinging, and no one gets off the hook. It puts euthanasia of British elders beside the holocaust, and Disney World. The last chapter of the novel absolutely clobbered me. I’ll search out other books by Hope.


Michael Ignatieff—Scar Tissue

This novel received great reviews when it was published, all of them deserved. The book is an examination of loss, grief and acceptance. The first-person narrator watches his mother drift into dementia and his father struggle to cope. The father dies first; his two sons are left to cope with the mother.

I was deeply moved by this book. Perhaps it is because the book touched my own grieving, and acknowledgement that you must grieve in your own way, in your own time. But it would be dismissive to say it was only the personal connection. This is a powerful book. Articulate and well written, deeply philosophical, recognizing both intellect and feeling but also exploring the lines between. Everything is complicated and nuanced. Nothing is easy or quick. I was impressed by the thoroughness of argument but also the concise nature of the book.

It is also an examination of stories, the telling and recording of stories. It’s about words. The book affirms the power of fiction. Scar Tissue is the work of a powerful and uncompromising intellectual.


Beryl Bainbridge—Every Man for Himself

It’s the story of the sinking of the Titanic, through the eyes of the adopted nephew of J Pierpont Morgan, a passenger on the fated maiden voyage. In a Rohinton Mistry novel you are told every detail of the lives of the characters—who begot and raised them, how and where they shit, what they eat, how many wrinkles they have and how they were acquired. Some would argue that such details add to the grit of the novel. Morgan, the main character in the Bainbridge novel has some mysterious birth. His mother is oriental and his father is related to J P Morgan. After I finished the novel I searched out the mystery. In real life, George Dennison Morgan married a Geisha. And not just any Geisha—he married the famous O-Yuki, the inspiration for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Bainbridge trusts me to find out—she doesn’t need to rub my nose in her exhaustive research.

Morgan is a member of the privileged upper class of his time. As we know, the Titanic’s passengers included the Astors and Strauses. Again, Bainbridge doesn’t draw out details on these people.

Here is an excerpt from a review from Reed Business Information: “In a few deft strokes Bainbridge shows the gulf between the steerage passengers and the “nobs” while communicating the alternating servility and resentment of the crew. The book is nearly over before disaster strikes, but once again, the unnerving details seem just right: the careless self-confidence at the beginning, the gallantry quickly eroding to panic. Bainbridge’s swift, economical novels tell us more about an era and the ways in which its people inhabit it than volumes of social history.”


Beryl Bainbridge—Master Georgie

In this novel Bainbridge takes on the Crimean War; her focus is exposure. Three characters each narrate two of the book’s six sections. We learn about George Hardy, the Master Georgie of the title, first from Myrtle, a teen who has lived in the Hardy household since she was taken in as an orphan, then kept on because Georgie’s sister Beatrice takes a liking to her, until the family gets a dog. Narrator Two is Pompey Jones, a street-wise urchin who learns about photography from George. Number three is the older and uxurious geologist who marries Beatrice. The four are tied together by the death of George’s father, in the bed of a prostitute—an event that must be kept secret to ensure the social position of the Hardy household.

Each of the sections is titled after a photographic plate, dated. During the section, we find out how that photograph came to be taken. The novel is a return, without repetition, of many themes in Bainbridge’s Titanic novel—heroism, social class, peace, war, how history is captured and recorded and how we are ultimately powerless. There is none of the bombast of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Bainbridge, in an interview, said most people have to read the novel three times to really understand what is going on. Close attention, to every word, is essential. Myrtle’s account of an event contradicts the telling by Pompey. Then George will say Pompey is mistaken. When I finished, I started again and read the first 30 pages again. How did Bainbridge pull this off? No superfluous detail in this book.

To really give any details about the events would be unfair to potential readers, and ultimately the novel isn’t about plot anyway. The novel has been called an “anti-blockbuster,” which is perhaps the reason it didn’t win. You aren’t likely to find folks reading this at the beach. It’s a deceptively simple read, but is highly demanding of the reader.


J. M. Coetzee—Disgrace

Disgrace is a highly educated but casual narration that often is about the very essence of communication. David is an English professor whose job has been altered by the “great rationalization” and now teaches a course on Romantic poets but otherwise “teaches Communications 101, ‘Communication Skills’, and Communications 201, ‘Advanced Communication Skills’. Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.”

David is a failure at writing and communicating. The play he is trying to write is “crap.” He has no relationships that go beyond the surface, including the one with his daughter. But more importantly the English language has failed to handle Africa: “He would not mind hearing Petrus’s story one day. But preferably not reduced to English. More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whole sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness. Like a dinosaur expiring and settling in the mud, the language has stiffened. Pressed into the mould of English, Petrus’s story would come out arthritic, bygone.”

Nothing in this novel is easy. The novel is very interested in consequences but it isn’t as simple as cause and effect. These characters are caught in the time and place, and the reader can never forget the changed and changing world of South Africa. All of the characters are the products of that situation. There are no simple answers to anything, race, culture, rape, ownership, community, love.


Michael Collins—The Keepers of Truth

The narrator, Bill, writes for the local paper in a small middle-American industrial town that is collapsing due to falling economy, lost jobs, increasing alcoholism and the other associated evils of a failing consumer society—cheap offshore labour, a generation living “off the backs of women and children, on the cheap labour of places without names.” Bill’s family made its fortune in ice, then in refrigeration. He went to journalism school, not with much flair or success. That lack of vigour is true of the rest of his life. Bill is an anti-hero. But one of the fine accomplishments of the novel is the success of Bill’s narrative voice.

In order to retain his income from the estate Bill must reside in the family mansion, as dictated by his controlling grandfather’s will. Near the estate is a zoo, and the image of cages in an ongoing theme, since like Bill, this whole town, and by extension the country, is trapped. Another theme is the death of newspapers and journalism and the take over of TV, a change that Bill and his newspaper cohorts see as all image and no content.

The novel is complex and teems with astute observations about the decline of the American Dream. Bill watches as his town, in the bread basket of the USA, succumbs to fast food and obesity and the “jingoism of our imprisonment.” A powerful novel.


DBC Pierre—Vernon God Little

To tell the plot of this novel is a bit of a cheat, since the careful unfolding of details is one of its accomplishments. The main character, Vernon Gregory Little, lives in a small town in Texas named Martirio. His best friend, Jesus, has shot sixteen of his classmates, injured a teacher then turned the gun on himself. “They” believe that Vernon had some role in the massacre and he is being questioned.

One of the themes of the novel is the way the press exploit mass grief. And as a result, grief becomes a commodity. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But the novel is told in Vernon’s voice, a sensitive white trash kid in a redneck small town. It’s sassy, smart-ass and full of wonderful wisecracks.


David Mitchell—Cloud Atlas VPL

Guest report from George Bowering:

The novel is constructed of six novella-length stories, each of which involves people who are desperately travelling, often being pursued by others who do not wish them well. A cloud atlas is a book of photographs depicting the various kinds of clouds; it is used by weather-watchers, especially those who are travelling by sea or air. The term “cloud atlas” shows up a couple of times in Mitchell’s book. In one case it is the title a musical composition written for six instruments. In the novella titled “Letters from Zedelgheim,” a young composer describes his “sextet for overlapping soloists.” “In the first set,” he writes, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.”

That is the structure of the novel, of course, and as each of the instruments has “its own language of key, scale, and colour,” so each novella is set in its own place and time—and genre. We see a nineteenth century sea story, an epistolary fiction, a satirical British comedy, a post-apocalypse dystopia, and so on. In each novella a character is allowed to read something from the previous narration. And each of these characters bears a peculiar birthmark in the shape of a comet. So it goes: abcdeffedcba.


At first one is put in mind of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and one is inclined to congratulate Mitchell for stepping out of the general everyday meadow or backstreet of standard British fiction. Then one is delighted to catch quick glimpses of other writers, great or domestic. One is encouraged to recall the entire structure and history of literary architecture. And here is the accomplishment I admire most: while David Mitchell took the time to invent a tricky, puzzling, intricate and lengthy machine of experimental writing, he also provided some admirable chase scenes that will have you reading well past your lights-out time. I am not the first reader to attest that I wished for, say, another three novellas in the composition.


Nicola Barker—Darkmans

Guest report from Sharon Bakar, Kuala Lumpur:

To talk about the plot of the novel is almost beside the point. Yes, there are story threads that run through, but they seem almost incidental, and not all are gathered neatly together at the end leaving the reader still caught in the mystery of who and how these folks in a modern Kent town become possessed (it seems) by characters from the past.

The action doesn’t (for the most part) move out of a tiny geographical area, the town of Ashford in Kent. It’s a nowhere sort of place, a transportation hub, serving the Eurostar service to continental Europe and torn up by roads. Whatever charm and history it had in the past has become pretty much obliterated in the interest of “development”. But Ashford with its bypasses and Tesco’s and substandard modern housing estates, is arguably the main character of the book, and the past comes back to haunt … with a vengeance.

I don’t recall ever reading a book where I was so immersed in the reading but also so aware of the words on the page. The world of Ashford is so immediate. People are fixated by text messages, shop on abebooks and listen to Puff Daddy and Sting. This is not the soft, fuzzy Britain of PBS specials. Characters discuss the trivia of the Internet, the manipulative nature and unreliability of the tabloid press and the consumerism inherent in the Nike brand. But the novel is so richly concerned with language and linguistics.

On her publisher’s website Barker explains that Darkmans is a book “about how history isn’t just something that happened in the past, but a juggernaut with faulty brakes which is intent on mowing you down.” This novel mowed me down. I will search out Barker’s other books.


Will Self—Umbrella

It’s brilliant. In my 2012 report I’ll tell you why.

*   *   *

Jury: Matthew d’Ancona, writer and journalist; Susan Hill, author; Chris Mullin, author and politician and Gaby Wood, Head of Books at the Daily Telegraph. The judges were chaired by author and former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington.


Stephen Kelman—Pigeon English VPL

Yet another first-person child narrator, this time a recently immigrated boy from Ghana trying to figure out the world of the housing estate in London where he lives with his mother and one sister—another younger sister and the father have stayed behind for financial reasons. If you liked Room and were persuaded by that child narrator you will probably like Harri. For me it is faux-naif.

Harri is a good runner. He tries to fit into his new school and community and that includes the gangs and violence. At heart he is a good kid but the tough life of the housing estate is luring him in dangerous ways.

A young boy has been murdered. Harri and one of his friends play CSI and look for clues to find the murderer. Based on an actual incident (10 year old murdered by a 12 year old) I had similar concerns to those I presented about Room—are these two writers exploiting the pain of real children? Or to give my concerns some Canadian context, how would readers respond to a novel written in first-person about the best friend of Carla Homolka’s dead little sister?

The book does in some ways capture the fear and chaos of housing projects and the difficulties of immigrants. I was less convinced by the portrayal of Ghana. It’s idyllic. Why did they leave? And Harri has grown up in Ghana but doesn’t once mention the cold of London. Such things make me think this is a white male using the voice of an 11-year-old Ghanian.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the second narrator. A pigeon. Harri has made some footprints in fresh cement. He asks the pigeon to “guard them for me until they’ve gone hard, OK?”

I will. Anyone wants to spoil your party they’ll get more than they bargained for, I’ll shit on anyone who gets too close. Do you want to know what I think? And I’ve been around long enough to have formed a few opinions. What your problem is, you all want to be the sea. But you’re not the sea, you’re just a raindrop. One of an endless number. If only you’d just accept it, things would be so much easier. Say it with me: I am a drop in the ocean. I am neighbour, nation, north and nowhere. I am one among many and we all fall together.

Or maybe I’m just a rat with wings and I don’t know what I’m talking about.

This is Kelman’s first novel. Another much-hyped book that created a bidding war.

AD. Miller—Snowdrops VPL

The tone, pacing, descriptions and language at the beginning of the novel reminded me of a Sam Spade story: “Sergei Borisovich was short, with a face like a perplexed potato.”

From the book jacket: “Nick Platt is a British lawyer working in early-2000s Moscow: a city of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs, communists and chancers; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw. Nick doesn’t ask too many questions about the shady deals he works on—he’s too busy enjoying the surreally sinful nightlife Moscow has to offer.”

And that’s pretty well it in a nutshell. Nick gets involved with two girls and colludes with them in duping an elderly lady out of her apartment. It’s not a suspense novel; any suspense is undercut by the first-person narrator periodically reminding us that he should have seen it coming. Nick is a passive protagonist, and not particularly appealing. One review says he is “seduced by a culture he fancies himself above.” He is certainly naïve and not very connected to his own life but rather is content to let others shape his actions.

The plot isn’t particularly convincing. The great strength of the novel is Russia, a more realized character than any of the people in the story. Miller is a journalist who writes for The Economist; from 2004 to 2007 he was the magazine’s Moscow correspondent. This is Miller’s first novel.

Patrick de Witte—The Sisters Brothers purchased

Another night at Jean’s Rambunctious Booker Club

I told the group that for the first hour they couldn’t say if they liked it or not, but could only talk about the novel. For a few minutes that stopped them in their tracks.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are cold-blooded killers, tasked with tracking down and killing a man on the instructions of their boss. The novel is narrated by Eli, who is searching for love but is also deeply loyal to Charlie. The two brothers travel the northwest on their way to San Francisco.

We discussed the device of the novel. Often it seems an ironic skate on the edge of cliché. Eli as an anti-hero who never achieves anything. Unless you see the return to mother at the end as a type of redemption. Is the novel a modern Odyssey—the one-eyed Cyclops becomes Eli’s one-eyed horse, Tub? Is it scriptural/Christian so that the dunk in the glowing river is a type of baptism and then redemption?

We did agree the novel is a quick read, and highly readable.

Then the discussion moved to Caprice, George Bowering’s novel. Judith said if The Sisters Brothers has two interesting things going on, by comparison Caprice has at least ten, all of them more complex than what is happening in the de Witte book.

Literature is a conversation that the writer is having with the reader, with previous writers, and with a tradition. Caprice is very much in a conversation with the tradition of the western novel. For instance, in Western novels you always know what sort of guns guys are carrying, what sort of hats they are wearing and the horses they ride.

Is The Sisters Brothers a western? Reviews often say so but why? For a while we talked about what makes a western a western and agreed that de Witte doesn’t seem to understand the Western form. Certainly westerns are hot properties these days: Cold Mountain and Deadwood.

Okay, not a western, then what? Adventure? Search for gold? Hmmm. The search for gold is part of the USAmerican conversation. Canadians don’t buy into that story. So, we talked about this novel being more in keeping with the traditions of American novels and American culture. And more specifically the Hollywood movie tradition of casual acceptance of violence. The novel reads like a film script.

Not a western, then maybe an historical novel? Well, no. There is no historical awareness to the novel. No politics. No discussion of government. No evidence of research. And it’s not a mythological tale; it’s a straight-ahead narrative with no back story.

It’s a picaresque novel. First person autobiographical, low-life main character with no plot, just a series of episodes. No character development, no enlightenment, no change of heart. Plain language with lots of satire. The immorality of the hero makes him a sympathetic outsider. Bingo.

Most of us enjoyed the book. Certainly, there are lots of very funny scenes. GB loved the running gag of the kid being hit on the head. Some people liked the dentist stuff. So, entertaining but did it make us think?

Brian Fawcett thought the book was designed in the marketing department—how can we make money? Jean thought the novel was a one-trick pony, great fun to read but not much depth. Jean actually thinks the Booker jury fell for it because they thought it was an exotic western novel. GB wondered about the Intermission sections. And then there is the challenge of first-person narration.

Then the vote. Pauline said the novel is very teachable because it is readable to entry-level students, 6. Renee hated the first part and loved it after the river baptism, 6. Charlie chastised us—don’t blame a writer if the book gets attention, appropriate or not, and, of course, he is correct, though winning a prize does put a book under the microscope—8. Brian, calling it JunkLit, 4. Judith, 6.75. Dennis, who really enjoyed and liked the novel, argued it is a weird slice of lie, a giant novel of entertainment that charms the reader, 9. GB enjoyed the read but found it too easy and was too often disappointed, 7. Jean, coming down the finishing path of the Booker, wants an international prize to deliver really good books, not okay books, 6. I wanted it to be more, and it could have been but somehow didn’t bother, or didn’t know how.

Deb was unable to attend but wrote:

Sisters Brothers [ In a time and place before the invention of contractions.]

After nearly a year [when was the Booker-Basher founded ? – do we get a party ?] of being disappointed in most of our Booker selections, it was refreshing to enjoy a book – the story and the way it was written. [Reminiscent of the language used to recreate the era – in the movies -Lonesome Dove, Deadwood, and True Grit.]

deWit’ s language does remove us from the familiar, but takes us to a constructed allegorical place. Most of the observations come from Eli’s internalized experience, and most of the descriptive writing is situated around his emotions. But I was able to ‘see’ this place and found myself on a road trip inside the mind of someone else. [I have not read The Road yet – need to gird my loins.. …heard there are parallels.] Was it intended to be a movie script??

At its best, the writing was wonderfully clear – in particular when describing Eli’s rages when he is subsumed by his madness. Tub and hellish San Francisco were real standouts, and the deadpan humour popping up to leaven bitterness and doom.

At times I slipped off the saddle, as we rode along – the trail got a bit crowded, a bit too surreal – like Twin Peaks after episode 6 – and at times I felt manipulated by clever writing. So I did not remain engaged the whole time, which for me is the mark of a great book.

A story of redemption, able to support the dear reader – most of the time – on a journey through harrowing and ridiculous situations, to land, so unexpectedly, in a mother’s arms and a childhood bed.  7.8

Weeks after our discussion, things were still buzzing about Coetzee. How did The Sisters Brothers stack up against Coetzee? From Judith:


No, I never had a romantic relationship with J.M. Coetzee and probably never met him. However, I am acquainted with the character John Coetzee. My reference to a possible meeting with him, a kind of tease (was he there, was I there, was that the year, etc.) was an ironic reference to the elusiveness of the author who is sometimes, sometimes not, the character of the same name, and to the slipperiness of the character who plays a role for the author Coetzee, particularly in the memoirish trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, Summertime. It was also a reference to the intensity of the fictional Coetzee’s problematic relationships with women and the way that the author Coetzee presents these relationships, which seem to be extremely important to John but almost inconsequential (or at least irritating) to the women involved when they are asked to look back and remember. It interests me why Coetzee uses this device, which at first seems a kind of self-deprecation, in several of his books. Clearly, he commandeers certain facets of his own life and personality as a basis for something bigger than personal narrative and makes us consider the uncomfortable and complicated mesh with the political. But why does he use his own name? Why not just invent someone else? Maybe Fawcett’s word, autochthonic, is best (if I read him right). Maybe Coetzee really wants to make the point that whatever fiction he creates, he cannot escape the inevitability of his origins. Although in Coetzee’s case, his Africaaners background makes him both native and interloper. When I try to talk about this it seems obvious. Coetzee’s genius is to take me, the reader, into deeper layers, to unravel the obvious but not provide pat answers.


Coetzee seems to suggest, by leaving the question at the end, that the choice is between two different kinds of masculinity (or humanity?), one that is dogged and dutiful, if not loving, but that cannot break out of that, and one that that may not be fully evolved but is trying. I liked that John is trying, in his clumsy, boyish, sometimes intelligent, sometimes naive way, for a deeper, more connected way to be, even as he fails. Coetzee doesn’t let us stay with a romantic vision.

De Witt does say something about emotional starvation, trauma and its consequences….His reach is smaller than Coetzee’s but then, his characters seem to have farther to go to get to the starting gate. Or do they?


Coetzee is so interesting to me as a novelist because underlying his books is a struggle to to get at something that is almost impossible for most of us…what????truth??? honourable behaviour? awareness of consequences? ability to face the consequences of position, gender, fortune, misfortune and make shifts? It’s a big reach. How to shift forces of privilege and violence. De Witt’s reach is smaller. I don’t think we have to blame him for this, if this is all he can do…but we don’t have to be satisfied with it either. TSB isn’t boring (except to Fawcett)…it is just not enough.

I keep thinking about something George Stanley said during one of our first discussions, something like “There is no world here.” De Witt creates a fantasy world that bears some resemblance to the world as might have been experienced somewhere, sometime, but who knows where, really. At moments he creates a plausible emotional world, particularly after the baptism in the river of gold scenes that finally drew Renee into the novel. But George Bowering is right, he doesn’t really take us somewhere we haven’t been, somewhere that’s not easy to get to, but from within a context, a world, that we understand from the writing really does exist, even if we had not imagined it in such a way before. It takes a better or perhaps a more mature writer to be able to create that context in a way that is compelling but not purely didactic nor romanticized.


I liked The Sisters Brothers for being entertaining, but I don’t have any reason to go back to it, to contemplate its insights. Take the toothpaste bit. The anachronism was fun at first. Wow, did cowboys really carry tooth powder back then? But afterwards I felt I’d kissed the wrong guy, the one who’s charming at first but turns out to be too slick. He leaves a bad taste and tooth powder won’t fix that. Maybe de Witt has a bigger story in him, beyond the return to the mother tit. Will those boys suckle a bit and then become farmers? I don’t think so; although he makes us wish it could be true. Fairy tales have their place. But what about when you grow up?


(p.s. Martin Amis, on the other hand, thinks Coetzee “has no talent” because he’s all doom and gloom. He’s right that Coetzee isn’t awfully funny. De Witt is, and good for him. We need them both.)

Carol Birch—Jamrach’s MenagerieVPL

Charles Dickens and Moby Dick meet Life of Pi.

Category: Overwritten, sentimental, sweeping historical novel.

Jaffy Brown, the first-person narrator, has a way with animals. Based on a real-life incident in the 1850s, the novel opens with 8-year-old Jaffy coming face to face with a Bengal tiger that has escaped from Jamrach’s menagerie—Jamrach makes money collecting and selling exotic animals to the wealthy. Jaffy reaches up and pats the tiger on the nose. Jamrach intervenes, pulls the tiger’s jaws apart and Jaffy is unscathed. Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach and the rest of the first section shows his life in London’s East End and his friendship with siblings Tim and Ishbel. The descriptions of London with its smells and textures are some of the best sections of the novel.

By the time Jaffy is 15 he has decided to go to sea, to join a whaling ship along with Tim and to search for a Komodo dragon. There are long sections about chasing and catching whales. I struggled with this section because none of the characters are really developed, even the strange Skip who sees things. They do capture a dragon, bring it on board where the crew become convinced it is a curse. The ship gets hits by wind tunnels, overturns and the 12 surviving crew find themselves afloat in the ocean on 2 small whaling boats. Then there are 11. Then 10. Ten starving men. Then cannibalism. This section goes on for a hundred pages or more. It’s both grueling and tedious.

When Jaffy and Dan are finally rescued, having eaten their way through the rest of the crew, the novel really falters. Back in London, Jaffy is displaced. During the time at sea we get day by day descriptions of each sip of water, each morsel of bread. The final section skips along at a clip, covering off years.

From the start I was unconvinced by the narrative voice. It’s a woman, not a man.

Highly teachable, for all the wrong reasons.

Esi Edugyan—Half-Blood Blues

Jean’s Booker Club, again

The novel is about a bunch of black jazz musicians during WWII. They escape Germany for Paris, and then Paris falls to Germany. Category: holocaust, marginalized group, oppression and racism.

I pushed George to lead us off. He usually likes to listen and respond. But I wouldn’t let him off the hook. George said Edugyan knows about suspense and is okay at characterization and is good at plot. She seems to think she knows what she is doing about language. But George is a big jazz listener and he said her language when she talks about music doesn’t sound like jazz to him at all, for the most part. He was persuaded by the black lingo—what we are to accept as a cross between Baltimore street language and European black. George thought it was a mistake to write the novel from the first-person—writing in dialect is very difficult unless you have a great ear and firm control.

Brian Fawcett said it was creative writing school stuff. The “authentic black dialogue” read like Uncle Remus, and then there would be a stretch of “Creative Writing school novelistic analyticals” that clashed horribly.

We looked at several passages where the narrator switches from black lingo to language that seems more appropriate to a university creative writing assignment. It seemed to us that the language was a combination of research and the way a well-educated woman thinks black musicians would speak. The voice switches from Uncle Tom to overwritten.

Pauline reminded us of the novel we read that was written in Glaswegian. That one really got into all our heads. But for Half-Blood Blues, she never “relaxed into it.” Charlie pointed to a number of sections noting that the way Edugyan handles the language isn’t the way slang works. Or as someone said, she had a story idea then “dragged it through the molasses.”

There are also inconsistencies with other languages. Sid, the narrator, doesn’t understand French. But several times he overhears a conversation in French then later can remember it. How could he? Well, poor editing.

George said the writer shows her limited knowledge of jazz when she praises Winton Marsalis; that’s middlebrow jazz, not the sort of music the characters she is trying to make us believe in would identify with.

Pauline argued that the details are historically interesting. The novel stops in 1940, with characters who believed that because they were citizens of the United States of America that they would be untouchable. The book attempts to be an historical novel, but isn’t. On the back cover there is a praising blurb by Laurence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes. That book considered a history that is not well-known. The historical information in this book in not important in the same way.

Brian Fawcett would not let that comment slip past, “An incomprehensible comment. Are you saying that Lawrence Hill is “historically accurate?” haahahhahahhaahhahahhahahhhaaaa. Only in relation to the history of cocktail parties in Toronto…”

We all agreed that the book has moments of good writing and astute observations, but those are not sustained. There is lots of stuffing. Some of the writing is amateurish—forgivable, even expected, with a young writer but not the level of writing you expect in a prize-winning book. Well, actually…

We liked the Kid, who is magical.

The sex is contrived and unconvincing.

Judith said that what really annoys her are the reviews and press saying this novel is “brilliant”. But if you check reviews online it is clear that not all readers were convinced.

And then, as always, I asked for votes. The members of my slippery group always squirm at this stage, no one wanting to go first. It’s an “arrogant exercise,” both “demeaning and patronizing.” The first-person narration has “no complexity.”

Score out of 10,” screamed Jean, threatening to go get the spritzer bottle for crowd control. And look what happened: GB 5, Renee 5, Pauline 5, Judith 5, Deb 3.5, Charlie 3, Dennis 3, Jean 5. Wow! We haven’t seen consensus like that since Life of Pi.

Rex Weyler keeps in touch with our book club by email since he abandoned us for Cortes. His comments:

Blk Bld Blues doesn’t need me to kick it around, since it appears to have been in capable hands with you lot, but I will say: I grew up in southern US white/black communities, some integrated, some completely segregated and with lots of racism and general nastiness. In any case, I played basketball and had black friends, so I grew up around black lingo in the 50s and 60s, and the alleged black lingo in this book was so bad that I recoiled each time she tried to sound all street-brother jive ass. She just didn’t have it. She needed to go live in the black ghetto for a year or so.

And I thought the big soul-shaking question – does art justify pain and suffering – was contrived, hypothetical, and silly. The effects of Sid’s actions were happenstance and bad luck in the context of genuine evil, psychopathic human behaviour. If this were a real-life case, we might say Sid really fucked up, but he wasn’t justifying evil for the sake of art!

And the jazz culture stuff: terrible.

Julian Barnes—The Sense of an Ending VPL WINNER

This short, tight novel gives the impression of being a very small canvas—a man later in life looking back on a friendship and incident from his youth. It is anything but a small canvas, intently exploring the nature of history and the story of our lives. The plot is almost incidental to the probing questions and reflections about the passing of time and the passing of lives. The novel gives the appearance of being average. It is not.

The jury dug themselves into a hole for 2011. Intent on “readability” and books that “zip along” the jury fashioned a short-list where only one book could possibly win because only Barnes is writing with maturity and depth.





More from Jean Baird:

  • 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… 

  • 2006

    Jean Baird examines the Canada Council's literary prize process and reports on the 2006 Booker Prize. Read more…