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Best of the Booker

4 November 06 words: James Walker
A look at four previous Booker Prize winning novels from the past decade

Salmon Rushdie's 1981 winning novel Midnight's Children is widely regarded as the 'booker of bookers' gaining him almost as much attention as the fatwa imposed for his infamous Satanic Verses. James Walker locked himself away in Sneinton Windmill for a week and gave his verdict on four past winning novels.

Vernon God Little2003
Vernon God Little

DBC Pierre
Testament to this outstandingly dark comedy set on death row is the fact that this first time author beat off former booker winner Margaret Atwood as well as Monica Ali's highly acclaimed Brick Lane. This is a bit like Accrington Stanley beating Nottingham Forest in the Carling League Cup. Perhaps one of the reasons this book was received so well is because of the celebrification of the author. Having led a rather colourful past, the media couldn't resist personalising the context of the book and in doing so unwittingly trivialised what is a superb, generally underrated, work of fiction.

Reading it is a bit like entering the trailer trash world of Jerry Springer in the sense that you don't know whether to laugh or cry, switch off or keep watching. Similarly, just as watching Jerry is unhealthily addictive, so too the more you encounter betrayal, misery and amorality in this novel the more you crave it. This is because it reads as a shopping list of one-liners, thereby tempering the depressing storyline.

As with that other master satire of contemporary American culture, Catcher in the Rye, VGL has a young outsider as the main protagonist and a narrative highly critical of its particular society. Firstly, there are the news items which jovially juxtapose death and life ‘we'll have the latest on that failed appeal, and also - the duck and the hamster that just won't take no for an answer’ the very casualness which spurned Morrissey to pen Panic back in the eighties. But best is the selfish way in which people seize upon VGLs subsequent death to make their own fame and fortune, none more so than the journalist Lally. He comes up with the idea to hold a Big Brother style vote-in to death row when he is meant to be making a film to help him. Lally rationalises that ‘not so long ago all executions were public’ and that ‘it makes plain sense to give that right back to society’ through the aid of TV cameras. It is endless dichotomies of value such as this which leave the reader unsure who is actually the most despicable character in the book.

Life of Pi2002
Life of Pi
Yann Martel

Piscine Molitor Patel is a young boy raised in his family's zoo in Pondicherry, India. A curious, bookish individual, who - much to his parents shock - decides to simultaneously embrace the religions of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all at once. On the surface this may seem a little naïve and confused but it is at the very heart of the novel, a dilemma which the author later asks the reader to answer; which stories in life do you choose to believe, which stories really matter.

The zoo is a wonderfully exotic setting for a book and allows for a lot of comical observations. The only really serious matter arises when Pi's father insists that he witnesses the family tiger, Richard Parker, being fed a live offering. Pi's mother is against this but the father feels it is necessary that his son learns the fundamental truths of nature for his own safety. Growing up with animals he is in danger of mistaking them as friendly pets. It turns out to be the most salient advice.

Mr. Patel later decides to uproot his family and the zoo to emigrate to Canada and so begins a journey across the Pacific. However, disaster strikes and the ship sinks. The only survivors sharing a lifeboat are Pi, a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and the 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What had previously been a happy witty narrative turns into a Darwinian nightmare as Pi is thrust into the food chain in a small confined space. The reader feels immediately uncomfortable with the sudden descriptions of carnage given the previously comical light hearted narrative.

During his 227 day voyage, Pi quickly has to learn to adapt to his new situation in this seafaring menagerie. Firstly his will to survive takes precedence over his vegetarian principles as he is forced to catch fish to survive. He learns to protect himself from the sun, collect rain water and most importantly, ensuring Richard Parker is fed and kept happy so that he himself does not become the next meal. This is done by drawing up clear boundaries between himself and the animals and by comprehending the complexity of his situation in a logical manner.

Despite the ensuing dangers the voyage is full of fleeting moments of beauty and reflection such as when he makes eye contact with a whale and the descriptions of the many varied fish he encounters. It reads, as critics have observed, like a cross between The Jungle Book and Lord of the Flies on a modern day Noah's Arc. The reader goes through every gamut of emotion and shares in this spiritual and mystical journey. It is a philosophical, inventive, profound meditation into the human condition which challenges the reader on many levels. However, what is most disturbing is the author’s notes at the beginning of the book. Read these after you have read the novel and you will be left pleasantly perplexed, in a state of confusion as to what to really believe in.

Ian McEwan

Amsterdam was probably selected because it managed to incorporate so many different themes into an incredibly short narrative; political scandal, euthanasia, midlife crisis, the arts, rape, cross dressing, media ethics, love and morality. In doing so he has condensed too much in to too short a space, consequently it failed to achieve verisimilitude. The benefit of a longer narrative is that the reader has more time to empathise with characters and take on board the complexities of issues raised, having said that the short sharp style gives the book an almost tabloid feel which perfectly encapsulates the morality of some of the characters.

The novel follows the fortunes of Clive Linley a successful composer and Vernon Halliday a broadsheet editor, both are old friends who are brought together at the funeral of former lover Molly Lane - a moist feisty individual who has also had a fling with Julian Garmony, the Tory foreign secretary tipped to be the next prime minister. Using one character (Molly) as the linchpin for the narrative is a clever literary device which works well and has done so in other novels such as Last Orders, the 1996 Booker winning novel by Graham Swift. Given her awful death, the main characters agree on a euthanasia pact should any of them lose their sanity.

This is classic McEwan territory, prominent figures who have the power to exert influence on society. Their flaws are exposed for all to see and laugh at. Clive Linley for example is a wonderfully self indulgent genius who is so far up his own arse that he fails to report a crime he witnesses, being far more concerned with completing his Millennium symphony. Vernon displays similarly dubious morality when he publishes compromising pictures of Julian Garmony in an attempt to boost the circulation of his publication thereby revealing a secret which Molly had respectfully taken to the grave. The self indulgent actions of Julian and Clive mean both have lost their sanity and sense of rationality and so begins a dark tale of back stabbing, plot twists and deathly revenge.

J M Coetzee

J M Coetzee has won the booker prize twice, in 1983 for Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace. Therefore any review of past winners must include this most highly respected author. Disgrace, as the title suggests, is an uncomfortable read which offers an apocalyptic vision of South Africa whilst dealing with love and familial relationships in the darkest sense.

The narrative is conservatively written, reading like a series of facts. Consequently, the reader is given no direct access to the emotions of the characters which works particularly well given the content. This helps to avoid the over sentimentality which a lesser author may have pandered to, leaving the reader to pass judgement for themselves.

David Lurie is a university lecturer who shows a lack of emotional conviction towards others. An English professor specialising in Byron, he comes across as an intellectual  bore with an inability to form meaningful relationships with women - as his divorces and liaisons with a prostitute testify. This leads him to have an affair with a student, taking advantage of his position to satisfy his misguided lust. With insinuations of sexual harassment the student drops out of college and Lurie is asked to apologise for his behaviour but refuses to pander to departmental rules and societal expectations. His stubborn refusal to go along with this results in him losing his tenure and leaving in disgrace.

Because of his new found situation - rather than any parental obligation - he goes to stay with his daughter Lucy in the outback. Whilst staying there she is raped. Lurie pleads with her to report the crime but she refuses, stubbornly having as little faith in the police and authorities as her father. However, unlike her father, Lucy’s reasons for silence are more pragmatic and deemed necessary for her to simply get on in the outback – a world far removed from the comfortable corridors of knowledge her father once frequented. Their respective reactions to these events are tragic and conclude the novel.

David Lurie is arrogant and selfish and has become detached from reality. He may have learned a lot from Byron but it is his daughter who is the true hero. The characters jump out at you on the page but the narrative suffers from a neat symmetry of events concluding the book which was a reminder that this was a cleverly constructed work of fiction by a clever author rather than a story my imagination could run away with. The kind of book I would expect Lurie to write himself... 

James Walker website


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