David Bjoerling Jensen

Tag: Booker Prize

“The God of Small Things”

Roy, Arundhati.  The God of Small Things.  New York:  Random House, 1997.

Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” is an ominous and enigmatic novel with a pernicious tone that is set early on.  It’s like a dark and heavy fog at dawn, leaving the reader to guess whether the sun will eventually emerge to burn off the fog, or if it’s getting ready to drizzle and thunder and lightning all day.  Set in India circa the time of the Communist revolution, it is a tale of two lovers fatally attracted to each other (literally), and two children who are fraternal twins.  The story ends on a happy note, but doesn’t have a happy ending.  That is, the plot is chronologically disjointed in such a way that certain major events are foreshadowed, while subsequent chapters jump back to fill in the blanks as the story unravels.  The writing is extremely rich with detail, a lot of which is pertinent and revisited time and again, but a lot of which isn’t, and only serves to poetically bolster the language.  For example:

Years later, when Rahel returned to the river, it greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed.

Both things had happened.

It had shrunk.  And she had grown…

Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now.  A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish.  It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furrowed brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater.  Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it.  Splay-footed, cautious.

Roy’s writing style is Rushdie-esque in at at least two ways.  Firstly, she takes excessive liberties with the rules of the English language, often combining words to make one, or breaking one apart to make two, and uses sentence fragments frequently to accentuate matters.  Secondly, her manner of storytelling is like an overgrown and untamed flower garden, splendorous but chaotic…naturally beautiful and organic, but a lot to sort through.  The tale unfolds with a quality of dream-like effluvia, held cohesive by the exaggerated use of repetition.  Lots.  And lots.  And lots of repetition.

While the content is eerie and the tone despondent, I very much enjoyed reading this novel.  My only critique is that sometimes the commandeering grammatical rule-breaking comes off as a touch self-indulgent.  But hey, for a first-time novelist to win the Booker Prize on her debut work, I’ll allow it.

“Midnight’s Children”

Rushdie, Salman.  Midnight’s Children: A Novel.  25th anniversary ed.  New York:  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.

This is one of my favorite passages from this novel:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence; I must be guided by the memory of a once-glimpsed file with tell-tale initials; and by the other, remaining shards of the past, lingering in my ransacked memory-vaults like broken bottles on a beach…(491).

I like this quote because I find it poetic, but also because it encapsulates the reading experience I had while involved with this detail-rich, densely-packed story.  That is to say, my memory of the essence serves me well…but the inexhaustible character development and twisting deepening turning plot leave me a touch evaded…like a dream from the distant past that you still remember, one that was profoundly symbolic and stuck with you for days after it occurred, but is now somewhat amorphous not in theme but in detail, as imagery has gently dissipated with time, while its fundamental gist still remains.

Rushdie, the marvelous teller-of-tales that he is, has descriptive capabilities easily on par with Charles Dickens.  Told in a first-person narrative, this fictional autobiography is set in the turbulent time period directly after India gained independence from Britain’s imperial authority in 1947.  The intent of this review is not to recount the storyline, but rather, to elaborate on what makes Rushdie such a unique and exceptional novelist.  His sentences are complex, while he breaks bends distorts rules of punctuation and syntax in a dynamic and creative way.  He uses repetition brilliantly…a perforated sheet, a silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli, saffron-and-green, the blue of a Kashmiri sky; these are a few themes that poignantly, yet casually, emerge again and again, which make you smile each time because of how deeply couched they are in context and meaning.  Moreover, his marvelous vernacular usage truly breathes life into this novel.  Certain place names, terms of endearment, or other colloquialisms were completely unfamiliar to me as a Western reader.  But that’s what gives this book a whole other level of depth.  I mean, I loved the story because it was complex and imaginative and emotional.  But for an English-speaking Indian audience, on top of its literary refinement, it must certainly carry cultural overtones/undertones and historical frame of reference that  hit home more so than I can even begin to imagine.

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981.  It also won the Booker of Bookers Prize in 1993, which was judged as the best novel among all previous winners in the 25 year history of the prize at the time.  A similar prize known as The Best of the Booker, was awarded in 2008 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the prize. A shortlist of six winners was chosen and the decision was left to a public vote. The winner was again Midnight’s Children.  So, yeah, if you like ingenious storytelling and have the wherewithal to stomach a substantial 533-page work of fiction, then get on with it…this one is well worth your time!

And for what it’s worth, the Hollywood film adaptation is due out in early November of this year.

2012 Booker Prize Shortlist

Earlier this week, the shortlist for the 2012 Booker Prize was announced.  The six titles, selected from the longlist of 12 announced in July, include two debut novels, three small independent publishers, two former shortlisted authors, and one previous winner.  The finalists are:

Being selected for the shortlist of this prestigious literary award is a notable achievement, as each of the authors receive £2,500 along with a specially commissioned hand-bound edition of his/her book.  The winner is awarded an additional £50,000 and can generally be assured of international acclaim and success.

As a personal aside, my particular interest in the Booker Prize has been spurred by my recent volunteer experience at The Morgan Library & Museum, where I catalog monographs in their Booker Prize Collection.  The collection is comprised of some 3,000+ items that were donated to the institution by an avid collector.  I’ve read the 2011 winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, as well as the 1981 winner, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie–both of which are captivating novels, well deserving of the prize’s tagline, “fiction at its finest.”

The winner of this year’s prize will be announced in London on October 16 at a ceremony covered by the BBC.

“The Sense of an Ending”

Barnes, Julian.  The Sense of an Ending.  New York:  Aflred A. Knopf.  2011.

The Sense of an Ending

The opening passage for this novel goes like this:

I remember, in no particular order:

     –a shiny inner wrist;

     –steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

     –gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

     –a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

     –another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

     –bathwater long gone cold behind the locked door.

This isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

Intrigued from the get-go, I delved deeply into this provocative work by author Julian Barnes.  This novel recounts the story of a man’s life, as he is forced to recollect his past in order to make sense of an unexpected and mysterious turn of events in his present.  To say much more would give it away.  Unmistakably British in tone, his sentences are very sharp and pointed.  He breaks the rules of grammar with sentence fragments and indulges in conjured-up misspellings.  Sometimes one paragraph will convey what occurred over a period months, while at others it takes numerous pages to depict what took place in just a few minutes.  As the reader is drawn into the story, the mystery behind what it all adds up to only gets deeper. Not until the last couple of pages does it all coalesce.  At which point, upon returning to the opening passage, everything makes sense.

At 163 pages, this is the type of book that deserves to be read in a single sitting.  Under a blanket. On a cold, grey day.  Over tea.  Remarkable read!