Archives for posts with tag: Man Booker Prize

The Sense of an EndingMiddle-aged Tony Webster receives a bequest from the will of the mother of Veronica, his ex-girlfriend from his university days, which is strange since he only met her mother once, decades ago. It starts Tony thinking about his school and university days, thinking about the past, about memory and perception. He had a close group of friends at school – Adrian, Colin and Alex. Adrian was a more recent addition to the group – serious and extremely smart. The bequest brings Veronica back into his life – bringing back to life the memory of their break-up, leading to Tony uncovering truths that had stayed hidden all those years.

Julian Barnes creates a sense of mystery surrounding the events of Tony’s university days. The odd bequest makes Tony rethink everything he thought he knew about that time. Every action, every tiny look remembered by Tony becomes imbued with meaning that he thinks he missed the first time, meaning that was probably was never even there. That’s not to say there aren’t real secrets to be revealed, but essentially The Sense of an Ending is a study of theme – the focus is on the nature of memory, not plot, not necessarily even people. I’m normally drawn to the plot of a book; I love a good story, so originally I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in reading it. But having read a couple other Man Booker shortlisted books from the same year (Snowdrops and The Sisters Brothers) I was curious to see what beat them – The Sense of an Ending was the winner of the 2011 prize.

I loved Barnes’ style of writing – clean, honest, insightful, with dashes of humour. His writing has a formal, rather English sensibility. In keeping with that vibe the characters are fairly uptight and stuffy – private school history lessons, discussions of poetry, Veronica pretentiously judging Tony by what books and records he owns. But don’t let the idea of affected English university students put you off; Barnes slyly mocks Veronica’s haughtiness and Tony’s boyish panic at being found to be intellectually wanting. The line ‘But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.’ struck me as I was reading The Sense of an Ending, it really says everything about the characters’ perspectives and the tone of the novel – that fight between heady freedom and traditionalism.

Barnes is fascinating and astute as he writes about how in capturing the past in memory it becomes mutable, that the truth of the past is often lost to us because of the distortion of memory. He ruminates on responsibility, morality, nostalgia, and remorse (a step beyond mere guilt, when it’s too late to make amends according to Barnes’ definition). There’s a pervasive sense of melancholy, the melancholy of old age. The final realisation that your life is what it has been, when there’s no more future to imagine. It all sounds very bleak but for Tony it takes the form of philosophical musings rather than a gut-wrenching realisation.

I found Veronica extremely exasperating. She was at university, she’s worse as a middle-aged woman. I fail to see why Tony was ever attracted to her. Though I can’t imagine Barnes meant her to be anything but. But personality aside, I found Veronica exasperating because of her role in the events of the novel. The plot of The Sense of an Ending relies heavily on misunderstandings, incorrectly recalling fragments of memory, assumptions, cryptic conversations that begin explanations but only lead to more false assumptions. If Veronica would have just sat down with Tony and explained everything properly then there would have been no mystery. I guess things aren’t that simple in real life either. People lie and keep secrets all the time but I just felt like Veronica was obfuscating for no reason. Her stubborn refusal to explain (‘You still don’t get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.’) just serves to keep the story going, keeping the reader guessing, which, in turn, serves to further elucidate Barnes’ thesis on memory.

Also, for those who’ve read it – I understand why Tony feels guilty about the letter he wrote to Adrian, it was scathing and cruel, but for Adrian to blame him at all for what happened next seems ludicrous. Guilt works in mysterious, illogical ways but that Tony would accept any of that blame is maddening.

I’m confident that The Sense of an Ending is a great book, I’m just not so confident that I loved it. In some respects I feel confident recommending it, it’s definitely high quality writing, but I can’t seem to maintain my enthusiasm for it. I guess it comes down to the mystery of personal preference. I am enthusiastic about Barnes though, reading The Sense of an Ending has made me want to read something else of his.

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Mister PipNormally I’m almost worryingly meticulous about choosing what books I should read but Mister Pip was a spur of the moment choice. I’d heard of Lloyd Jones before, not Mister Pip, but it sounded interesting (a tropical island setting, the threat of civil war). As you might gather from the title, Mister Pip revolves around the novel Great Expectations.

On the island of Bougainville, near Papua New Guinea, civil war threatens to break out. Mr Watts, the only white man left in Bougainville, takes on the position of schoolteacher. He has no training and little knowledge to pass on. All Mr Watts has is a copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (‘the greatest novel by the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century’) and a belief that everything worth knowing can be found within its pages. Matilda, a girl in his class, is captivated by Great Expectations’ renowned protagonist, Pip, and the power of storytelling. Mr Watts’s meddling in the lives of the Bougainvilleans isn’t always as well received by the adults and when mixed with the oppressive redskin soldiers’ dogged pursuit of local rebels it produces dire consequences.

The high level of Great Expectations-related content didn’t really register when I chose Mister Pip, that or I momentarily forgot I don’t really like Dickens. I don’t think it would really hamper your enjoyment not to, but a working knowledge of Great Expectations wouldn’t hurt. I’ve read some of the book (I never have bothered to finish any Dickens) and have seen the 1946 movie version twice, which seemed to be enough background.

Now since I’m not Mr Dickens’s biggest fan I was a bit incredulous about the profound impact Great Expectations could have but I do understand the impact a book can have, especially when young. I had similar obsessions with R.L. Stine and Roald Dahl when I was in primary school (not highbrow tastes but the effect was the same). Books help us make sense of the world and, in turn, we don’t just read them in a vacuum, our understanding of them comes from what’s around us. Mister Pip celebrates the power of books and storytelling to get you through hard times. For Matilda, Great Expectations is an escape from a violent world but she can also see a glimmer of her own life, through Pip, mirrored back. These refracted shards of reality help Matilda make sense of life and feel a little less alone.

The challenge of Mister Pip is to identify with the island natives. Characters like Matilda’s mum, Dolores, who hates Mr Watts’s interference in her daughter’s life, made little sense to me. I can see Jones trying to inspire empathy for her but she comes across as a God-fearing, petulant child. Her way of thinking is so far removed from my own, that the default is to always side with Mr Watts. The relationship between Matilda and her mother has truth to it though. The betrayal Dolores feels when Matilda trusts the wisdom of Mr Watts, a white, atheist interloper, over her own is the hurt all parents feel when they are no longer the sole focus of their child’s admiration and love.

Parts of the novel frustrated me. Several major plot developments hinge on characters behaving in a way I thought seemed irrational (Matilda’s mum hiding Great Expectations, Mr Watts telling the rambos that he is Mister Pip). They’re dealing with soldiers who are looking for any excuse to kill, rape and destroy, so they may not be at their most logical but too much rested on these misunderstandings. Lloyd Jones’s adult characters are nuanced, never wholly right or wrong (which I normally love) but their particular flaws were maddening. I’ve shared my feelings on Dolores but Mr Watts doesn’t get away reputation unblemished. He seemed to be a man whose only remarkable qualities were a strange obsession with Great Expectations and being the only white man left on a small island. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I was disappointed in him. Yet I saw why Mr Watts meant so much to Matilda (and I bonded with her), during a turbulent time he gave her someone to admire and believe in.

Mister Pip is centred on several startlingly significant events but the moments in between languished. A significant chunk of the novel is spent (wasted) on Matilda and her classmates reconstructing the plot and dialogue of Great Expectations from memory after their copy is lost. And after its powerful climax, Mister Pip continued on longer than I liked.

Lloyd Jones has written a poignant, charming book, interspersed with moments of harsh reality, violence and suffering. It’s fairytale or fable-like in the raw beauty of its prose and its quiet moral complexity. But I think it’s that same quality that was what bothered me when it came to the characters’ actions. Instead of acting in their own best interests Jones’s characters seemed to exist to serve the fable, often to their detriment.

Cloud Atlas spans time periods, covers genres as varied as science fiction, thriller and farce, and showcases a range of storytelling techniques including epistolary, diary and interview. There’s Adam Ewing’s nineteenth century diary of his sea voyage from the Pacific to the United States, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in the 1930s, 1970s journalist Luisa Rey uncovering a conspiracy, publisher Timothy Cavendish’s strange ordeal, the testimony of fabricant Sonmi ~ 451 set in a future Korea, and the post-apocalyptic tale of Zachry, a farmer living in a primitive society in Hawaii. Before reading it I found the novel’s unusual structure of tenuously linked sections a bit off-putting. I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories, which is what Cloud Atlas sounded like to me, but I ended up loving it despite my misgivings.

David Mitchell has a real talent for capturing characters’ voices and personalities. In each section the tone and style change completely. Sections shift from comical to dramatic and thrilling. Many parts are suffused with humour and wit. I found, given the staggering differences in style and content, my favourite parts of the novel were more pronounced. I wished some stories would last for longer. The futuristic settings were my personal favourites, but then, I’m a bit of nerd. It’s technically dazzling, accomplished and stylish writing. And through it all Mitchell gives a knowing nod to genre conventions he borrows from. In the thriller segment, ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, Rufus and Luisa are talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Charade:

Charade’s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?’

‘A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.’

The plotting is magnificent. Each story is complex, full of enough detail to fill six novels, and all are wildly different. Yet they each form a tapestry. A comet birthmark is a recurring detail, letters or diaries written in previous stories are read by later characters, characters reappear. And thematically the stories are connected. Mitchell deftly exposes humanity’s lust for power and greed throughout the ages, culminating in the central post-apocalyptic tale. Cloud Atlas’s various parts are further brought together by questions about reincarnation, religion and spirituality. I enjoyed pulling together the threads from each story, and noticing the little similarities.

For all the complexity of plot and experimentation with style and language Mitchell’s writing isn’t strained. I was worried it would be self-indulgent, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but thankfully it largely appears effortless. In the post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ Mitchell reinvents the English language for a new age, indulging in linguistic gymnastics, playing with words, spellings and punctuation.

I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ’bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah…an’ I dived.

The story is the richer for it, so inventive I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Mitchell does have a detached writing style. All but one story is a first person account but emotional resonance is often relegated to the background. But it’s so entertaining I’m willing to forgive him. The strength of Cloud Atlas lies in the exhilarating storytelling. In ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ Robert Frobisher writes of his daring new musical composition, ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ and I think Mitchell knows that is exactly the type of question that could be asked of Cloud Atlas’s format. Revolutionary is probably taking it a bit far, but it unquestionably surpasses gimmick. Cloud Atlas is ambitious and unique but not at the expense of its sense of adventure.

The film version of Cloud Atlas is out in Australia in February next year so I’ve only seen the trailer, but so far I’m not sure I like the look of it. Visually it looks stunning, but it seems like the directors are trying to beat us over the head with the idea of reincarnation, of souls meeting over and over across time, by using the same actors to play a variety of characters (with different genders, races and ages). I never pictured Mitchell’s concept taken so literally, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Especially since special effects makeup generally manages to make the wearer look strange and grotesque. Films have had amazing special effects makeup for decades for horror movies (look at movies like The Fly and The Thing) for this very reason, while old-age makeup that doesn’t completely distract remains an elusive proposition. And don’t even get me started on makeup changing gender and race. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait and see.