Save Me From the Booker
My great literary burden continues
Since I began my epic sled-drag through this year’s Booker long list nominees, the Booker Prize announced its short list. Only one of the four books I’ve read so far made the short list, Damon Galgut’s The Promise. It happened to be the best of the four I’ve read so far. I’m giving myself a chuck on the shoulder for my good taste. But my mission was to read the long list, and it’s easier to get hold of the long list books that didn’t make the short list. So my thankless journey continues.
No book is ‘An Island’
‘An Island’ is a book notable more for the story of its publication than for the book itself, which is short and sad. The author, Karen Jennings, is a South African aid worker who found herself stuck in Brazil during COVID with her scientist husband. ‘An Island’ found no quarter in the mainstream publishing business. An independent publisher called Holland House picked it up, and gave it a 500-copy print run. And then, somehow, the book got a Booker Prize nomination. It’s a feel-good upset story, even if the book itself doesn’t make you feel good.
The story concerns a lonely, dying old man named Samuel who tends to a dilapidated lighthouse on a remote, unpopulated island at the edge of Africa. Hilarity ensues. Some guy who is escaping from a terrible plight washes ashore, and the old man must share his home and his food. It’s a strong setup, and Jennings is great at describing the sparse living conditions and the tension that comes from being the only human in an austere natural setting.
But then the book bogs down in flashbacks to Samuel’s life. He was a street beggar, and then came independence for his country. But then the new government turned out to be corrupt, he joined the resistance, and then went to prison. Somehow, these sections don’t grip as much as the situation at the lighthouse, which is full, and detailed, and tense. The more I learned about Samuel before the island, the less interesting I found him, which can’t have been the author’s intention.
But ‘An Island’ is still an interesting effort, and it falls into what you could almost call a genre of post-post-colonial African novels. While they’re usually not the most fun books to read, the most interesting Booker novels I’ve read in the past year have all been about Africa. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘This Mournable Body’ was a fascinating look at ecotourism and exploitation of women in post-colonial Zimbabwe. ‘The Promise’ traced the decline of an Anglophone farm family over four decades in South Africa, pre- and post-apartheid. And ‘An Island’ tackles similar topics.
I’ve spent four days in Africa total in my life, so I know nothing of it first hand. But these Booker books provide an interesting road map to modern African history. The colonial period, for most places in Africa, is many decades in the past. These books deal with the legacy, and come to the conclusion that modern self-rule isn’t so hot either.
‘Light Perpetual,’ by a British man with the made-up name of Francis Spufford, concerns a horrifying German rocket attack on a crowded London Woolworth’s in 1944. But it doesn’t, really. Instead, Spufford decides to take the names of five children killed in that attack, imagines that the attack never happened, and launches the children forward into 50 years of modern history.
It’s kind of a corny conceit, but it plays into the genre of World War II Alternative History Rebirth (which appears to be a thing) that Kate Atkinson popularized in Life After Life. And it might have worked if Spufford’s prose weren’t so stodgy and the characters he created dull and basically indistinct from one another. I found myself saying “which one is which?” during the brief moments that he presents them. And the snippets are very brief, so you really have to dig deep to understand who these people are and what’s going on. The answer is, usually: not much. It’s a literary version of Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ film series, but without the warmth and surprise. This is a bad book.
The worst part: Spufford sets up his conceit with a magical incantation. It’s not delivered by a witch or a wizard. That would have been weird or interesting. Instead, it’s done in the author’s own voice, as though he’s saying, “here, I’m waving my wand and this is what’s happening. I feel so deeply.” And now, I present it to you in full:
“Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light.
“Come, unsounded deep”? What the fuck is this shit? Come on, man!
All I know is that if I keep reading Booker Prize-nominated novels exclusively, I’ll be coming dust in no time.