Elizabeth Strout ‘Oh William’

As we drove along the road—again almost no other cars were in sight—William said, “I’m sorry for all that crap I did in our marriage, Lucy.” He kept looking straight ahead at the road, he seemed relaxed as he drove, his hands were at the bottom of the steering wheel. I said, it’s okay, William, I’m sorry for how weird I got.” And he nodded slightly and kept on driving. We have had this conversation—almost exactly that—for a number of years since we separated, not frequently, but every so often it pops up: a mutual apology. This may sound strange, but it is not strange to William and to me. It is part of the fabric of who we are. It seemed completely right that we should say this now.

So, off to England in August, don’t do this every year – the expensive month. Picked up Oh William in the first days, and this is my first experience of Elizabeth Strout. I’ve added the opening quote which I think illustrates her deceptively simple writing, and as in this example hitting the mature relationship bang on as seen by Lucy in this conversation with her ex husband William.

This book investigates a moment in Lucy’s life, her childhood through the parallels with her mother in law’s equally poor and unloved life, leading to her abandoning her husband and especially her young daughter, William’s previously unknown half sister, this whilst ostensibly helping William to come to terms with this discovery.

This discovery of her mother in law’s abandoning her daughter actually seems to bring Lucy to a greater compassion and understanding for this overwhelming lady that when she was alive seemed so, unlike Lucy, assimilated to the moneyed class.

An easy read for what is an introverted style of writing, makes me think a little of Annie Ernaux, perhaps more subtle.

First Published in English as “Oh William” in 2021, by Random House

Anthony Doerr ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’


What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.


Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote

We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.


She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.


Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:


Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.


In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:


He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.


Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.

First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate

Emma Stonex ‘The Lamplighters’


When they built these towers they made sure our bedrooms faced the coast, a lighthouse keeper retires to his bed feeling his beacon settle on home and they want your beacon there, img_3150they don’t want you getting ideas about the sea beneath you, quieter and deeper than it’s safe to know. a keeper’s in bed, that’s when his memories grow bigger than he is and he needs the land, to be sure it’s there, the way a child listens for his father’s footsteps in the middle of the night. We’re all tied to the land.


Back in 1972 the three men living on the Maidan rock, Aurthur the PK (Principal Keeper), Bill his assistant and their junior, Vince the Young first time keeper, dissapear. Based on a true event Stonex tells us that all the clocks in the tower were stopped showing the same time and that the door was locked from the inside. The story oscillates between events in 1972 and events in the “present day”, 1992 as a writer of maritime fiction takes it on himself, by talking to the bereaved widows, to get to the roots of what happened back then. The opening quote helps to show something of the true loneliness that life, something that back then before the internet and cell phones, that over time could exercise on the keepers who could spend up to three months at a time on duty.

The tower life, of course, attracts men with a reason to live this life, from the PK who had never recovered from his only son’s drowning, to Vince hoping to avoid a life of crime with thisoffering a way out and from Aurthur who believes that living prolonged periods with two other people is “as good as it gets”:


Occasionally it strikes me how much time I spend with men i’d otherwise have nothing to do with. At home I don’t make friends easily, I don’t have the knack. People come and go there’s no time, can’t find a way in. Here it isn’t a choice, we learn to live together in a narrow column with no way out, men become friends, friends become brothers. For “Only Children” this is as good as it gets, when I was a boy I heard it as “Lonely Children”. I thought it was that through to when I was fourteen and saw the right thing printed on a medical pamphlet.


Through the women’s stories and their secrets, through Helen, Jenny and Michele, Stonex tells us of their grief, of their not knowing and why events drove them apart. Beginning by the backwards and forwards in time to let us see some of the pressures, from the shady Trident House that runs the lighthouses and gives no information on what might have happened, to the fact that the company provided housing so that even on land the keepers, and their wives lived next door to each other, sometimes passing long periods at home whilst their neighbour was away, she paints the picture, the background to those events.

In this slow moving, classy, well told whodunnit Stonex leads us on to her imagined final scenes in both 1972 and twenty years later. A story I would warmly recommend.

First Published in English as “The Lamplighters” in 2021 by Picador

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday

Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Klara and The Sun”: In order of reading book number 4.


‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’


Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:


I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.


We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:


Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.


Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

Another most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

James Wolff ‘Beside The Syrian Sea’


Our head-doctors are having a field day with you. They’re used to dealing with American problems – the jock with anger-management issues, the overachiever who under-eats – butnow they’ve got all this Downton Abbey shit to get their heads round: English uptightness, too much education, a religious childhood. I’ve never seen them happier.


Move over Edward Snowden, Jonas, the central character in this spy thriller, is coming. Jonas a happy enough analyst in British intelligence learns one day that his father a protestant minister has been kidnapped in Syria by IS. The british government cannot or will not negotiate so Jonas takes it into his mind to negotiate his fathers freedom himself. yes I said analyst, no field experience but lucid, realises he needs help and persuades an alcoholic priest to go back to Syria to try to open talks with IS for him. Jonas takes a large number of government secrets as barter and whilst the government don’t know where or which these secrets are, they don’t intervene too heavily. When the Americans find out they are not too impressed, see the opening quote.

In classic spy who came in from the cold fashion, divide and rule, Jonas plays off different miltant factions against each other. On the way he meets the reason behind the priests alcoholism, who incidentally is furious with him for sending her father back to Syria. The showdown in the desert where the IS fighters sent are British and not particularly competent adds a little “old style spy” atmosphere.

If you like spy fiction about intrigue and not so much about action then this is reasonable fare.

First Published in English as “Beside the Syrian Sea” in 2018 by Bitter Lemon Press

Jeanine Cummins ‘American Dirt’


Luca starts to understand that this is the one thing that all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances some urban, some rural, some middle class, some poor, some well educated some illiterate, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carry some story of suffering on top of that train and into El Norte beyond. Some like Rebecca share their stories carefully selectively finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers, other migrants are like blown open grenades telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet dispensing their pain like shrapnel so that one day they might wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would be like to blow up like that, nut for now he remains undetonated.


As the book opens, Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco and the world is well, she lives with her husband Sebastián, a journalist and her son Luca and her world ends at a family barbecue when gunmen enter her garden and kill all thirteen of her family members present except her and Luca who hide in the shower.

Sure violence is creeping into Acapulco with the drugs but it’s mostly invisible, happens to others then one evening Lydia learns that the reclusive boss of the cartel that has taken over Acapulco, that Sébastián will reveal in tomorrow’s newspaper is a customer she knows who comes to her shop with a bodyguard and who buys poems.

She knows she must run, fast and far but the cartel’s influence is far reaching, you can’t travel on a road between towns without them finding you, any youth could be working for them, all they need is a smart phone and a gun. We follow Lydia and Luca as the travel with other migrants on the roof of “La Bestia”, the freight train and the other migrants they meet, of the sisters Rebecca and the too beautiful Soledad, yes, to be too beautiful is no good thing, who teach them how to join the train:


The wind fuzzes through Luca’s hair as the noise of the train grows closer, the booming clatter and reverberation of those monster wheels hauling themselves along the metal of the track. The very loudness of that noise seems designed as a warning that enters through your ears but lodges in your sternum stay away stay away stay away don’t be crazy don’t be crazy don’t be crazy ..he sees it emerge from beneath his feet mammy peers over the edge of a low guard rail just as the train pulls itself into view it’s good Rebecca smiles at them, nice and slow. Ready, Soledad says. her little sister nods Lydia’s face grim whilst she studies the stretch of the train….Soledad tosses her pack and then follows it with one graceful, chaotic, suicidal lurch she moves her body from the fixed to the moving she drops, Lydia can’t tell how far it is six feet, ten and then the girl is instantly receding, her form growing smaller as she moves away with the train.


Not many of the hopeful migrants they meet actualy make it, far less have any money left on arrival and if they think the cartel only control the roads the they don’t know the power of corruption, but they do. And throughout all this the young boy Luca is working through the grief of losing his father, his abuelo and his abuela, aunts uncles and cousins whilst fighting to stay alive on this long journey:


Luca is exhausted, there’s a tug of war in his heart already between wanting to remember and needing to forget in the months to come Luca will sometimes wish he hadn’t squandered these early days of his grief…because as the forgetting part takes anchor and stays it’ll feel like a treachery.


No one makes this journey for fun, they are all fleeing from something, some are able to talk about their experiences, with difficulty to a chosen trusted person and others, well the are just time bombs waiting to explode. Jeannine Cummins takes us through despair, recovery of sorts and a raw energy to survive. Makes me think of a film I’ve seen “The Golden Dream

First Published in English as “American Dirt” in 2020 by Tinder Press.

Emily St. John Mandel ‘The Glass Hotel’


In their first winter together they flew south to a party at a private club in Miami Beach, Jonathan seemed to belong to an extraordinary number of clubs. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he told Vincent “but I’ve always had a weakness for places where it seems like time slows down.” Yet another clue that Vincent felt she should have picked up, why exactly did he want time to slow down? Was there something in that statement besides a general awareness of mortality some other inevitability that he felt was rushing towards him?


Who is the New York Financier, Jonathan Alkaitis, if you remember Madoff then you’re sort of getting there. This book is about the people around Alkaitis when the stock market takes a serious tumble in 2008 and anyone running a Ponzi scheme is going to be collateral damage. This novel isn’t so much about the central figure, but about the people around him, about Vincent, who was brought up in a remote area on Vancouver Island, one road with no roads in and no roads out, accessible only by boat. One morning whilst Vincent is just a child, her mother goes out in the kayak and never comes home, this event shapes her and her future. Vincent, beautiful Vincent back home on Vancouver island is working in a bar in the hotel Caiette, owned by Alkaitis, and as he can, he just whisks her off to live with himself. But why would a super rich man do this:


I want you close said Jonathan at the beginning….While he didn’t want to marry Vincent he did feel that wedding rings created an impression of stability, in my line of work he said managing other people’s money, steadiness is everything, if I take you out to dinner with clients it’s better for you to be a beautiful young wife than a beautiful young girlfriend. Does Claire know we’re not married?…Only two people in the world know that, you and me….But what kind of man lies to his daughter about being married? There were aspects of the fairy tale that Vincent was careful not to think about too much at the time and later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality as if she stepped temporarily outside of herself.


Does Vincent know anything about Alkaitis’s true business? Well the opening quote tells us that maybe she should have. Alkaitis knows his run cannot go on forever but his need for investors means that he takes down everyone and anyone around him, even people he is fond of invest with him and some lose everything they own. Leon Prevant, a shipping executive is one, he is unfortunate enough to be on holiday in the hotel Caiette when Alkaidis is there and we understand something of his charisma as he has insights into what Leon must be thinking because of his work. Prevant invests his life’s savings, including his pension with Jonanthan and we then follow Leon’s descent after the collapse. Vincent herself, though, just disappears and as a coincidence finds herself working on one of the ships Prevant used to manage. How does it finish? Well remember how it started when Vincent was a young girl?


In memory I’m back at the La Vu D’Or in the interior of gold and red listening to my least favourite of Jonathan’s investors, talk about a singer, no not a singer a Ponzi scheme, “Couldn’t recognise an opportunity,” Lenny Xavier said talking about the singer “whereas me when I met your husband, when I figured out how his fund worked, that right there was an opportunity and I seized it.” I watched Jonathan’s look of alarm, the way he leaned forward as he spoke, his obvious desperation to stop Lenny from talking. “Let’s not bore our lovely wives with investment talk” and Lenny smirked as he raised his glass “my investment performed better than I could ever have imagined”, he knew but of course I knew too, if not the details of the scheme then the fact that there was a scheme because I’d been pretending to be Jonathan’s wife for months by then, it was just that I’d chosen not to understand.


St John Mandel, a National Book Award for Fiction nominee and an Arthur C Clarke award winner has a smooth floating voice in this novel which slowly pulls you in.

First Published in English as “The Glass Hotel” in 2020 by Picador.

Brandon Taylor ‘Real Life’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Real Life”: In order of reading book number 5.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening.


Brandon Taylor takes us to a Midwest university where the research assistants are working hard for the opportunity of a career and thus life in academia. Taylor concentrates on a group of young researchers arrived at the same time. There was Miller, a tall lad from Indiana, Cole and his partner from the real world Vincent, Yngve whose father was a surgeon and whose mother taught history at a liberal arts college. And then there was Wallace, the book is really about Wallace who is up from Alabama and black, the opening quote telling us how he sees his friends.

This is yet another book in the selection with serious problems going forward from parent son relationships, Wallace whose mother drank weak beer all day because of her diabetes and whose father leaves them and somehow manages by this to define Wallace’s view of the world:


When I went to middle school my dad moved out of our house he says, he moved up the road into this other house my brother’s dad had built. It used to be an art gallery or something, a house first then an art gallery and then a house again, anyway my dad moved into it and he lived there, I wasn’t allowed to visit . He said he did’t want to see us any more. I asked him why and he said it didn’t matter why, it just was. He didn’t want to see us, me, anymore. Wallace is circling the rim of this old bitterness, can hear his dad’s voice rising up out of the past, that raspy laugh. He shook his head and smiled at Wallace put his hand on Wallace’s shoulder, they were almost equal height then, his fingers bony and knobby. He simply said I don’t want you here and that was it, Wallace was not granted an explanation for the break, for the severing of his family that left him in the house with his mother and his brother. He learned then that somethings have no reason that no matter how he feels he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.


So, having just watched a documentary on Toni Morrison, I recognise a certain number of the messages in her writing here. Choosing to set the story in an almost exclusively white Midwest university lets Brandon Taylor give full rein to Wallaces feeling of estrangement in his own country, to casual racism and general lack of support for him from his “friends”. As Wallace has had difficulties with his studies, having to work really hard to catch up with the others from a lower starting knowledge base, he understands that in the eyes of some, this was not his initial dissadvantage and that the real dissadvantage will never go away. The smooth talking and racist Romain explains this to him against the background of non intervention from the others:


His deficiencies ….What Romain is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness a lack of some requisite saneness, this deficiency cannot be overcome the fact is no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people. No matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him. “Did I hurt your feelings” Romain asks “I just want to be clear, I think you should stay, you owe the department that much don’t you agree?”
“I don’t have anything to say to that Romain”, Wallace says smiling. To keep his hands from shaking he clenches his fists until his knuckles turn to white ridges of pressure.
“Well think about it.” he says.
“I will thanks”. Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to, no one does, no one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it had never happened. Only Wallace will remember it, that’s the frustrating part.


Amid Wallace’s difficulties with his supervisor who wants him to really consider what he wants to do with his life and his homosexual relationship with Miller where they come close to getting to know something about each other and the sub-surface violence of Miller scares him, he comes to realise that “Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty, maybe that’s all they are doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.” And then there is this quote, the very essence of the book, which explains that Wallace just wants to be noticed and to be looked at as a person with this whole book explaining the impossibility of this simple wish:


Are you on that app?
Which app?
You know the one. Cole flushes as he says this looking away to the trees and to the long winding sidewalk that slopes down to the lake.
The gay one you mean?
That’s it yeah.
Oh yeah, I guess, sometimes.
Wallace deleted the app some weeks ago but this feels like a minor point Cole has always made sure to mention that he is not on the app and that he is relieved to have found Vincent before the advent of such technology, geo-location, finding the nearest queers for fucking or whatever. Wallace always has to keep himself from saying that Cole would have done well on the app he is tall and good looking in an average sort of way he is funny and quippy, gentle. He is also white which is never a disadvantage with gay men but Wallace says none of these things because to say them would disrupt Cole’s view of the average gay man as shallow and kind of stupid, they are shallow and kind of stupid but no more than any other group. Wallace only deleted the app because he had grown tired of watching himself be invisible to them, of the gathering silence in his inbox he wasn’t looking anyway but at the same time he wanted to be looked at the same as any one else.


This is a slow, persistant book, introspective about Wallace. What do you think he would/should do with his life from here?

First Published in English as “Real Life” by Daunt Books in 2020