Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, Man Booker Prize 2009

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History is written by the winners. Hilary Mantel takes this concept as a starting point to tell the story of Henry VIII’s reign through the prism of one of the most controversial members of his court; Thomas Cromwell. Traditionally, Cromwell has been portrayed by Tudor historians as a villain; a Machiavellian schemer who ruthlessly disposed of his advisories.

What’s interesting about Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner is her scholarly approach. Like any historian, she spent years researching the life of her hero using a number of contemporary sources. Like Schindler’s Ark, most of what happens in Wolf Hall happened in real life, but it has been embellished with fictional encounters and conversations. From the pages of Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell’s reputation is rescued somewhat. The Cromwell we see is man who has pulled himself up from off the streets and into the turbulent court of King Henry VIII. At the beginning of the story, Cromwell, the self-confessed ‘ruffian’ has been first a mercenary, then a banker, a lawyer and finally secretary to the King’s Chief Advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He is the original working class hero made good.

Cromwell is an actor who knows his role within the court of the king, and he needs to portray his role well because this is Henry VIII’s court, which is a nest of vipers. There is Wolsey himself, who plays to his king’s wills and wishes with hopes of consolidating his own power; Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who sees Wolsey and Cromwell as upstarts and a threat to the established nobility of England; and the Boleyn family, who through young Anne Boleyn, hope to take advantage of King Henry’s marital problems with his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. At the centre of the deadly theatre of the court is the king himself. Henry VIII is referred to as ‘noble’ and ‘gracious’, but he seems to not merit any of these titles. He is vain, prone to outbursts and ruthless to those who fail him. However, through Cromwell’s eyes, you almost, but not quite sympathise with Henry, whose inability to produce a legitimate male heir threatens the stability of his dynasty.

The book is 650 pages long, but it makes for compulsive reading. Having studied history at university, I was fascinated by the historical background of this period; you realise that Cromwell’s talents for money-lending, the law and knowledge of Europe means he has just as much power in England as the Duke of Norfolk and the other nobles who inherited their power. Mantel also writes with a fly-on-the-wall approach, which immerses the reader into Cromwell’s world. This is a well-researched and masterful piece of historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading the sequel, the 2012 Man Booker Prize winning Bring Up The Bodies, but for now, I am going to start reading Roddy Doyle’s 1993 Booker Prize winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

Stanley Middleton, Holiday, 1974 Booker Prize

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This 1974 Booker Prize winner by Stanley Middleton is certainly of its time. Holiday is a well-observed look at the decline of a marriage and the British seaside.

The main character, Edwin Fisher, chooses to go on holiday to a seaside resort called Bealthorpe, which is meant to represent East Coast seaside resorts such as Skegness and Bridlington. He has gone on holiday not to enjoy himself, but to get away from the breakup of his marriage to Meg. What follows is a soul searching story into why his marriage is falling apart. Trying to make sense of life when it gets unbearably difficult is an old and universal theme in novels, and Middleton crafts an emotional and engaging story around Edwin.

That’s not to say that Fisher is alone when on holiday. Middleton creates a whole raft of peripheral characters. This includes couples such as the Smiths and the Hollies, who provide Fisher with either welcome or unwelcome distractions, as well as his own parents-in-law, who are in constant contact in order to keep his marriage to their daughter together. All these characters represent certain English archetypes and are well formed.

As well as writing about a couple’s desperate attempts to save their marriage, Middleton also appears to be writing about the long decline of the English seaside resort, which was already in full swing during the 1970s. Bealthorpe itself is fictional, but Middleton could easily be writing about Skegness or Bridlington. The town seems to be a depressing place of cheap hotels and drunk holidaymakers with nothing to do. Fisher goes to Bealthorpe because he has nostalgic views of the place from when he went as a child; but this time, it only makes him feel worse. In the novel, Fisher thinks to himself; “Who came to these places now that package deals to Ibiza or Tangiers were so cheap?” Maybe Fisher would have been happier if he went to India, like his wife plans to.

Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea, 1978 Booker Prize

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Now readers, I said I was going to review Stanley Middleton’s Holiday in my last blogpost. Unfortunately, I had to order the book from another library, so I went to the next one of my list, the 1978 Booker Prize Winner, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.

Murdoch’s writing has been praised by critics for being detailed.  Personally, I found her attention to detail too distracting. The story revolves around a celebrated theatre director, Charles Arrowby retiring to the coast and living in an old tower in order to enjoy his retirement and reflect on his life. Murdoch’s prose is narrated in the first person so it is Arrowby whose view we see throughout. This is where I have a problem with it. Murdoch seems to get bogged down in the details of Arrowby’s isolated existence and I found that I got distracted and bored by this.

Secondly, Arrowby is not a likable character. In fact, I would say he’s deluded, jealous and paranoid, particularly when it comes to his past relationships. One of the strands driving the plot is that Arrowby rediscovers the women who got away; Hartley, his first love. It quickly becomes clear that Arrowby saw the brief relationship as more passionate than Hartley did. Now I know that Murdoch did this deliberately, but I didn’t feel that Arrowby was an intriguing enough protagonist. Likewise, the story just plodded along with no sense of urgency.

Otherwise, I can generally say that The Sea, The Sea is plodding and unengaging as a novel. Luckily, Holiday has arrived so I can start reading that now!

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam, 1998 Man Booker Prize

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ImageIan McEwan is one of those authors whose name keeps cropping up in popular culture, usually as one of Britain’s best authors. So I was anticipating a lot of things when I read my first ever Ian McEwan novel.

Amsterdam is the story of four men whose lives intertwine after the death of Molly Lane, who was wife to one of the men, and a lover to the other three. There is Molly’s husband George, who is a Publisher, and Molly’s lovers, who include Clive Linley, a composer; Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor; and Julian Garmony, MP and Foreign Secretary. Clive Linley is a man looking for inspiration for his new orchestral piece, whilst Vernon gets presented with every newspaper editor’s dream; a set of compromising photos of Julian. What follows is a story of lovers’ rivalry, blackmail, being a witness to a crime, cross-dressing and a suicide pact.

McEwan’s attention to detail is his greatest strength as a writer. He describes the everyday actions of his characters in minute detail in. I appreciated McEwan’s descriptions of the locations in the novel, particularly Scafell Pyke in the Lake District and the city of Amsterdam itself, as I have been to these places, and just reading about them brings back vivid memories of them.

As a thriller, Amsterdam keeps the reader glued from chapter to chapter, with delicious twists and turns right until the end. Much to McEwan’s credit, the novel is short, which helps the reader digest the multi-character prose. The novel is a well-crafted story and certainly shows why McEwan is held up by readers and literary critics alike as a master of prose.

The next book on my list is an earlier winner dating from 1974, back when it was just the ‘Booker Prize’; Holiday by Stanley Middleton (no relation to Kate or Pippa).

Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark, Booker Prize 1982

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Scindler's ArkMy latest read in the Man Booker Prize winners list wasn’t a typical winner back in 1982. It caused somewhat of a controversy on its subject matter, although the controversy wasn’t about its frank and brutal depiction of the Holocaust, but rather because the events of the book were real historical events. Critics and judges alike asked themselves, was this historical fiction or a factual historical book?

It is certainly true that Thomas Keneally’s story isn’t a traditional narrative. It does read more like factual history. You know from the beginning what happens; a German-speaking Czechoslovakian businessman named Oskar Schindler managed to save around 1,000 – 1,200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during the Second World War.

In my opinion however, it does feature the best of both formats.  As a history book, it is well researched and possesses a strong attention to detail, such as explaining the hierarchical structure of the SS, the complex history of Central Europe and its Jewish population, and the system of occupation which the Nazis enforced on the conquered territories of Europe.

It also reads like a novel in that it has two central characters which tower over the story and drive it along. The fact that these characters were real people makes them the narrative even more engrossing. On the one hand, you have the hero of the story, Oskar Schindler. He comes across as a bit of wheeler-dealer, ducking and diving with the Nazi authorities, the SS and the Army. At first he seems content with exploiting the opportunities presented by the German occupation of Poland by setting up his own armaments company in Krakow, Poland. It is only when he meets Amon Goeth, the local SS group commander that is view of the war changes.

Goeth is a monster, no simple way about it. He is sadistic in his random killing of Jewish prisoners in his camp; he beats his servants; and uses sexual violence to against female prisoners. Goeth is the servant of death whose task is to rid Krakow of its Jewish population. He chooses not to see the Jews as human beings; therefore he is not bound by a code of humanity to treat them as human beings. He simply does with them as he pleases, or as the Nazi government orders him to. When Schindler sees the void of humanity in Goeth and his SS men, Schindler does the most human thing in such an unimaginable situation. He says enough is enough.

The pace of the story also feels like a novel. Towards the end, you just want the war to be over so Schindler and his workers can make it through the war. You already know that they survive, but Keneally wants you to will them on.

As a novel, it deserved to win the Booker Prize back in 1982. It is one of the most harrowing, shocking and inspiring stories I have ever read. Although it did leave me with one question in my mind after I read the last page; how close was Keneally’s imagining of Oskar Schindler to the real Schindler? Was he, as Keneally would have him, the lovable rogue with a heart of gold, or was there more to Schindler’s actions than meets the eye?  All I know is that Keneally’s account of Schindler’s story is a harrowing tale of hope in the darkest period in the history of the world.

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, 1992 Man Booker Prize

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Now as mentioned in my previous post, I have seen the film version of The English Patient, and that film seemed to be a romantic epic of forbidden love in the pre-WW2 North African desert and in Italy during final months of the war. The novel from which it is taken seems to be more of a mystery which slowly unfolds on the reader.

Unlike the film, the central character of the novel isn’t the patient, it is the Canadian nurse Hana who takes it on herself to care for her mysterious patient, who was found horribly burnt after a plane-crash in the North African desert. The only item found on him was a copy of The Histories by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Contained in the book is the real story of who the English patient is and how he came to his grizzly fate.

Now I have to admit that the novel really dragged in the parts, particularly Hana’s story, where she is looking after her patient in an abandoned Italian villa. The more interesting parts of her story arrive with her father’s friend, the thief, cad and possible spy David Caravaggio, who has some personal connection with her patient. There is also love interest in the form of  Indian soldier/sapper Kip, who stays with them to get deactivate unexploded bombs and mines in the area. However, I found this romance to be a bit of a distraction.

Ondaatje writes in an interesting ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach which works well sometimes, particularly when describing the day-to-day activities of the characters. In other parts, particularly in important scenes involving Hana, Caravaggio, Kip and other minor characters, the narrative style can get distracting and it becomes hard to follow what is going on.

The parts where the story really gripped me was the story of the English patient himself and his past. It’s the mystery at the heart of the novel which propels the story along and wants you to keep reading until the end. I was similarly engrossed by the imagery of the novel. Ondaatje beautifully describes the vastness and serenity of the desert, the hustle and bustle of pre-war Cairo and the contrasting of beauty and decay in the Italian countryside which has been fought over by the Allies and the Germans

However, I think had I read the book first and seen the film second, I would have understood the novel and appreciated it more. I really liked the patient’s story because it had been the focus of the film. In contrast, Hana is the main focus in the novel, and maybe this is why I found her parts distracting.

So if I had to make a recommendation, it would be this. If you haven’t seen the film version, READ THE BOOK FIRST.

Continuing with the themes of the Second World War and film adaptions starring Ralph Fiennes, my next Man Booker Prize novel will be Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, which of course inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1993 cinematic masterpiece Schindler’s List.