Boeke 2007

2008-02-01 00:00

WHEN I picked up this year's list of Boeke Prize titles, I have to confess I wasn't inspired. We are asked to choose the most compulsive read, the most “unputdownable” of the eight titles, chosen by booksellers around the country. And I was disappointed to see not even one South African book on the list, which this year, for a change, concentrates on new titles rather than recent paperback releases as in the past.

Still, once I got started on two months' worth of reading, things did look up. Both my top two, The Emperor's Children and No Country for Old Men, are excellent novels. Both are compulsively readable and both offer more than just a good escape. And only one of the books was a thorough dud. So here, in order of one to eight, is what I made of this year's selection. The final result, after all the judges have sent in their lists, will be announced in Johannesburg on September 25, along with the top Fanatics' choice, selected by Exclusive Books' Fanatics members. I have a sneaking feeling that I haven't picked the eventual winner - in either category - but we'll have to wait and see.

1. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud. Picador.

A novel about the literatti of New York? I wasn't sure how much I could make myself care about them, but just a couple of pages into Claire Messud's beautifully written and utterly compelling look at a group of these rarified souls in the months before 9/11, I was gripped. Her characters span two generations, linked by ties of family, friendship, love and lust, and Messud makes them all fully rounded, believable and understandable, if by no means all likeable.

The main characters are three 30-something friends, one beautiful but overshadowed by a successful father and, to a degree, choking on the silver spoon she was born with; one is a television producer struggling to launch her career and the third is an impoverished hedonist. And they and the other characters move in concentric circles.

On the surface it may be a comedy of manners, but there is a great deal more at work here - a profound look at the intricate workings and flaws of a society about to be hit by an event that, at least temporarily, will convince them, along with most other Americans, that their carefully and cosily constructed world has been blown apart. There are funny moments - the country house wedding is something to treasure - and tragedies, and it all comes together, elegantly and crisply written, to make one of the best novels I have read this year. (And it is fascinating to see how the events of 9/11, taboo for a surprisingly long time, are becoming grist to the fiction writing mill.)

2. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Picador.

This dark tale of the battle between an old-fashioned Texas lawman and a thoroughly modern psychopathic killer scores right up there in the unputdownable stakes.

McCarthy takes the reader along at a breathless speed, only slowing for Sheriff Bell's internalised monologues. The story concerns what happens when one very ordinary man goes hunting, and finds the scene of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. There are dead and dying - and a case full of money. So he takes it, and sets in train a series of events that will lead to many more deaths.

But the book is more than just a thriller - McCarthy is meditating on the choices we make in our lives and the fact that they all, even if they seem benign at the time, are going to have consequences that will echo on and on. He is also looking at the nature of good and evil. It is a great read, even if the ending does tail off a little from what has gone before.

3. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Carol Brown Janeway). Quercus.

This briskly told tale of two eccentric scientists of the Enlightenment has an endearing oddness. Daniel Kehlmann has two contrasting characters in the upright well-born Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (known to us as the discoverer of the Humboldt current), and the cantankerous son of a peasant, Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the greatest mathematical minds of his or any other time.

Humboldt rushes around the world, climbing mountains, exploring caves and measuring everyone and everything he can; Gauss sits at home, being horrible to his wife and children, yet fond of them in his own strange way.

They only meet once, late in their lives, and it is not an altogether succesful encounter, but they develop a fondness for each other as they come to the realisation that time and events overtake even the most amazing discoveries. I loved the deadpan humour and the development of two very unlikely heroes.

4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Doubleday.

Set in the small town of Molching on the outskirts of Munich during World War 2, this is the story of Liesel Meminger, a child who, at the age of nine, is left with foster-parents after her parents have been taken to a concentration camp. She, her foster parents, the Jewish refugee they hide in the basement and the other inhabitants of the town live their lives against the backdrop of Hitler's Reich.

The story is told by Death, a narrative device that works brilliantly in places, but ultimately, I felt, became manipulative - a little too contrived as it sought to tear at the heartstrings. The book is moving and immensely readable, and Liesel's story pays tribute to the courageous acts, both big and small, by a few ordinary people in an extraordinary situation when madness ruled, but ultimately I felt a little used by the writer and his narrator - I can reach my own opinions, but they were reluctant to let me.

5. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Pity about the impossible title; this is in fact a beguiling novel. It is a sharp satire on Britain's New Labour - particularly the Blairite version - and the awfulness of political spin-doctoring. A nerdy fisheries scientist finds himself embroiled in a scheme to introduce salmon to a Yemeni wadi.

The scheme is the brainchild of a Yemeni sheik, a mystical character who manages to convince the sceptical, rather sad Fred Jones that everything can be done with faith - and love. The latter is in short supply in Jones's life. But then the politicians become involved. The climax of the novel is in the best traditions of political satire - completely ludicrous at first sight, but then you begin to wonder ...

Ultimately the book is probably too rooted in matters British to find a wide South African audience, but it manages to combine both charm and belly laughs, along with a gloriously reptilian Alistair Campbell figure.

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Bloomsbury.

Here Khaled Hosseini returns to Afghanistan, the setting for his very successful The Kite Runner (the 2004 joint Boeke winner). This time his focus is on two women, Mariam and Laila, both married to the unpleasant Rasheed.

Hosseini doesn't do shades of grey in his characterisation - people are either all good or all bad, and there is no doubt whose side we should be on. It is a compelling tale - Hosseini is a fine storyteller - and set against the backdrop of the horror that has been Afghanistan since the seventies, it is an often moving lifting of the veil on the miserable life women have faced in that country. Perhaps Hosseini lays the grimness on too thickly, and that makes his happy ending a little hard to believe, but it is still a good read.

7. Exile by Richard North Patterson. Macmillan.

This is a goodish, standard thriller, well crafted, if formulaic. It starts off with a competent, buttoned-up lawyer and would-be Congressman finding his well-planned life being thrown into turmoil with the reappearance of a woman from his past - a Palestinian. And David is Jewish. Then the Israeli Prime Minister is assassinated on a trip to the U.S., and David's life unravels further. Patterson deals well with the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and manages to keep the explanations readable, but the plot devices are too obviously signalled and the ending is a mish-mash of soap-opera and Casablanca. It's easy to read but not particularly memorable - airport stuff.

8. The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. Canongate.

The plot device of someone finding an incredibly rare book with a strange, murky past - in this case it is cursed and if you read it, something terminally nasty will happen to you - is overused, and has lost its freshness.

Of course Thomas's heroine, the strangely named Ariel Manto, reads the book and of course she soon has a couple of nasty goons on her trail. But the idea that the book contains a recipe for a potion to allow you to travel into another dimension is a clever one.

Cleverness is the other notable feature of the book - Thomas tosses out references to Derrida, Heidegger and Lacan along with great dollops of pop science and pop psychology. You are left with the feeling that the author really wants to have written a novel that will become a cult text. But for me the problem was that I never managed to care much about Ariel and her fate, still less become part of a Mr Y cult.

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