The result of the jury in the 2011 Man Booker Prize will be announced next Tuesday 18 October and I have been slow to keep up to date with the short list. As always, the list is controversial and omits some biggies - though I must agree with the decision to drop Hollinghurst and Barry, neither of whose books represent their best. The full list for anyone who missed it is: Sense of an Ending [Julian Barnes], The Sisters Brothers [De Witt], Halfs Blood Blues [Edugyan], Jamrach's Menagerie [Carol Birch], Pigeon English [Kelman] and Snowdrops [Miller]. I have already reviewed at length Sense of an Ending which, if there is any justice out there, should win - but then I have never guessed accurately the winner of the Booker!
If there should be a different book chosen, I could not argue about The Sisters Brothers. This is a book to give one pause and reverse many long held opinions. This is a Western! And I have to say that I was as far outside my comfort zone as I could be when I started reading it. Patrick deWitt is a Canadian, born in British Columbia, though now living in Oregon. This is his second novel and it is set in Oregon and California in 1851 around the time of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevada and the Coen Brothers must surely film it! I have to say that I never imagined I would find myself rooting for two psychopaths - but I did!
The two psychopaths are Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired killers, who are on a job taking them from Oregon to California and the book is, on the one hand, the story of that odyssey, the characters they meet on route and the events that occur, all told in a dead-pan, in-your-face manner, at times weirdly humorous; and, on the other, it is an almost spiritual odyssey for the younger brother, Eli, who is considering quitting his 'career' to open a trading post. The brothers' reputation precedes them and at every stop they only have to mention their names to secure instant fear and respect. Inevitably, they are challenged from time to time but always at the cost to the challenger. The story is narrated by Eli and, consequently, we are party to his laboured arguments with himself and his relationship with his brother. He is greatly attached to his horse and takes utmost pains to look after him in contrast to his easy acceptance of the deaths of various men en route. Indeed, the wonders of a tooth brush and tooth powder to which he is introduced by one character, a dentist, is more noteworthy than the deaths of four men who refused to loan Charlie their axe.
The 'job' takes an unexpected turn - enough of a spoiler! deWitt's writing is lucid and flowing. He eschews any descriptions of the landscape through which the brothers pass in favour of character development which is gripping. His language is particular and the dialogue appropriate to the period but beautifully phrased. At one point, a whore with whom Charlie has spent the night remarks to Eli, 'you got all the romantic blood, is that it?' to which Eli replies, 'our blood is the same, we just use it differently' which neatly encapsulates the gradually widening fissure between the brothers.
If you think Westerns finished with the Coen Brothers True Grit, think again! Just read it and see!
On the other hand, if you never get to read Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch don't worry. It is neither as magical or 'completely original' as A.S. Byatt maintains on the jacket cover. As a blurb on the back says, this is Dickens meets Moby Dick but I think if you want either, then read a Dickens novel or Moby Dick. The book was also longlisted for the Orange Prize so is clearly highly considered by some. I found the narrative uneven, at times tedious, and the conclusion disappointing if obvious. In its favour, I was relieved that Ms Birch did not try to emulate cockney slang or any dialect in her writing sticking to plain English with no anachronisms.
Without wanting to spoil the story, should you read it, there is one particularly interesting and well described section but at the same time, it has been done equally well elsewhere and is not original. The narrative is told by a Jaffy Brown, a cockney, who goes to sea as a teenager on a whaling ship with an extra purpose, that of capturing and bringing back a 'dragon' as they term an extremely large member of the lizard family, for Jaffy's employer, a certain Mr Jamrach who deals in exotic animals. His best friend, Tim accompanies him and the narrative describes their life on board which has none of the usual hardships associated with sailing in Victorian times in that they have a kind captain and friendly crew. The events at sea form the core of the story.
A tour de force this is not.
Half Blood Blues by another Canadian, Esi Edugyan, is a better read altogether. I have to admit the jacket and story blurb at the back of it put me off initially but I am glad I persisted despite them. Edugyan is a product of John Hopkins Writing Seminars from which she has a Masters in Writing and, I would guess, some expertise in jazz and music groups. Or else, she did some very good research.
The narrative concerns a jazz group formed in Berlin in the thirties three of whom escape to France but get trapped again there with the fall of Paris in 1940. The story is told by one of the group, Sid Griffiths, and deals primarily with him, his friend Chip Jones and the star of the group, a young black German, Hieronymous Falk. It moves between the events of that time and the early nineties when Chip and Sid return to Berlin and Poland following receipt of a mysterious letter that seems to indicate that Hiero is still alive.
Though I am often a little wary of the products of creative writing courses, this is a beautifully written novel with just the right element of suspense. The music scenes are well described with great veracity including the trials and heartache of cutting a record in the forties and Edugyan appears to have a genuine feel for the rhythms of jazz which percolate the novel. The intonations and language of her characters are perfect and she captures the atmosphere of Paris during the 'phony war' with great delicacy and skill. Definitely worth a read.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman still awaits me. Snowdrops by AD Miller does not appeal. Though well written as one might expect by a long time contributor to The Economist, the story falls short of what might be expected on the Booker List. It is a crime story set in Putin's Russia with elements of Bond and, as the Guardian review said, 'standard issue characters' in a Russia that one can happily think the worst of. Not my cup of tea!