Is there something I am missing? I thought Wolf Hall was quite good, but I didn’t really see why it was so revolutionary as a work of historical fiction. After all plenty of authors have written great historic fiction before. I also felt that as someone who has read a lot of Tudor history that there was a lot of content I had read about so many times before. Anyway, now Bring Up the Bodies has won the Booker, making Mantel the first British author to have done so twice.
I was planning to read this book once it appeared in a charity shop near me but now it looks like I might have to track it down a bit sooner. I have to admit that this one sounds more exciting with it dealing with the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, I can’t think that people are be as sympathetic to Cromwell as they were after Wolf Hall (although that was lost on me too, it definitely goes against traditional historiography). So my question is, if you know lots about Henry VIII already, can you still really enjoy these books?
In the interests of balance I include this video summarising why Mantel should have won (it didn’t persuade me – would Cromwell really have said, “I was always in the money. I always got the girl”, is he some 21st century gigalo?) and a link to an interview with Mantel herself.
I have a read a few other Murdoch novels before, and have ranged from quite enjoying them to finding the characters intensely irritating, this book has both of these ingredients. I wanted to read this as it had won the Booker prize and was interested to see if it was better than her other novels such as The Bell.
The story recounts that of Charles Arrowby, a retired theatre director who tries to escape London to live by the sea (the sea) where he begins writing his memoirs, however in a frankly bizarre set of coincidences Charles manages to run into virtually all his ex-lovers and acquaintances during the course of the book. As the book develops it becomes clear that Charles has a gigantic ego and often talks of a sea monster which obviously represents his ego/soul. He refuses to believe his ex-lover Harley is not still in love with him nor desperate to leave her husband – despite the fact that she dumped him as a teenager. It becomes more and more clear that Charles is completely deluded in his self-importance and has a horrible habit of breaking up his friends’ marriages just for fun. It is extremely hard for the reader to understand why so many women are throwing themselves at the sixty year old, selfish, Charles.
The book becomes more and more ridiculous as it develops and you are hoping that Charles will eventually drown in the sea, the sea. Even when he uses Hartley’s adoptive son Tobias (who appears coincidently and Charles automatically assumes that he would welcome him as a potential father),as bait to lure her to his house, and then kidnaps her, none of the other characters bother to do anything about it. I laughed out loud when Charles receives Hartley’s letter simply inviting him to tea, which of course he can’t believe it is not a love letter; “what did it mean, what was its deep meaning?”. There are interesting elements here, but it is a bit overlong and frankly a bit bonkers. As Sam Jordison in the Guardian argues, it is Charles’ inability to recognise the egotism and selfishness of his own romantic ideals is at the heart of the novel.
He then goes on to sum up the novel in an interesting way;
“As the title might suggest, this sea plays a major role in the book. It’s always beautifully described – and also, unfortunately, the subject of quite a lot of mystical bollocks. So there it is, a book that has left me thoroughly divided. It’s as flawed as it is wonderful and it took a brave jury to give it the prize. Or, at least, a very forgiving one.”
Listen to Digested Reads for another succinct and funny summary of the novel.
I first heard about this book when they were interviewing the author and AS Byatt on Radio 4´s Open Book. Byatt said she liked the book, now I don´t know if she was lying because Carol Birch was there but I hated it and found it really disturbing. Never has a book cover description and the accompanying review quotes misrepresented a book so much. I would challenge the Daily Mail´s `Magical´ adjective with `disgusting´or something like that.
Jaffy Brown lives in the Victorian slums of London and one day at the age of eight he finds himself being rescued from the mouth of a tiger by Jamrach. Jamrach (a real character) owns a menagerie and Jaffy begins working for him looking after the animals. As he grows older he decides to join a whale ship on an expedition to the Indian Ocean looking for a dragon (actually a giant lizard, like a crocodile). From this point things start going wrong.
The book´s description of the killing of a whale was upsetting enough but as it goes on there is horrific cannibalism. Now I know historically these things have happened in times of great hardship and this is actually strangely enough inspired by true stories, but I like to have a bit of warning that I won´t be able to sleep after reading a book. I suppose to be positive you could say her descriptions of the sailors decline and actions were so realistic that it made it unreadable, however, I found myself skimming towards the end to avoid gory descriptions and actually I was a little bit bored.
Parts of this book were interesting such as the journey to the various islands, and maybe I have got it completely wrong but I really found this a bit dull. How did it get shortlisted for the Booker?
There has been much debate as per normal as to whether Barnes deserved to win the Booker. Much of it has centred around the fact that one of the judges Stella Rimmington praised it as being “very readable” Was this a mortal sin? For some it certainly was, they argued that being readable was not a criteria and it should be about creative skill and now there is talk of creating a new prize for writing. Anyway for me the issue is whether he really deserved the prize or he was simply given it because he had been nominated three times previously.
The book like ‘Wuthering Heights’ or the Sarah Waters ‘The Little Stranger‘ has an unreliable narrator. Tony receives a bequest in the will of his ex-girlfriend Veronica’s mother and this leads him to start thinking about Veronica, and his school friend Adrian who committed suicide. Tony is eventually forced to confront his role in this affair and to question his culpability.
The novel deals with the issue of our memories and how reliable they are. It also makes frequent links to the nature of history and whether as Tony argues it is simply written not by the victors as but is “simply the memories of the survivors”. Adrian’s view however is that it is “simply written at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. As a history teacher I found these questions very interesting and it led me to question about my own memories of past relationships and their accuracy.
Someone at our book club raised the question as to who was the father of Adrian. Now I thought this was straight forward but it led to a bit of debate, so if anyone reads this let me know what you think.
According to the Man Booker website this is “a truly wonderful novel that will have the reader immersed in the story from the very first page”. Now I didn’t experience this until about 15 pages, although admittedly the book is very short at only 150 pages. A problem with the novel is that despite knowing Tony’s memories are flawed Veronica still seems hideous.
Now the book was an interesting read, and at book club I did recognise it is at first deceptively simple but it becomes one of those stories that makes you think. I have always found Barnes to be a bit of a mixed bag; I loved ‘Arthur and George‘ but some of his others such as ‘A History of the World in 10½ chapters I found less interesting. Overall for me an interesting and short read but not really a Booker winner.
Click here for a very funny digested read of the novel at the guardian
Read this for details of the Booker controversy http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/18/booker-prize-julian-barnes-wins