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A S Byatt

I saw on the TV news last night that the author A S Byatt has died.

She won the Booker Prize in 1990 for her novel Possession: A Romance, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Children’s Book in 2009, but the only work of hers I have read is Ragnarok: the end of the Gods.

I really ought to have got round to at least those two award winners.

So many books, and only 365 days a year to read them in.

Antonia Susan Duffy (A S Byatt;) 24/8/1936 – 16/11/2023. So it goes.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 459 p

 Girl, Woman, Other cover

this book, joint winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, has an idiosyncratic typography

only proper nouns and titles of plays etc are given capital letters and there are no full stops

each sentence is set out as a separate paragraph, no matter how


neither are there any quotation marks to indicate dialogue

I suppose that last stricture goes to show that prose involving speech can be understood without them – but it certainly cuts out scope for comments in any pedant’s corner

nevertheless, I am at a loss as to what this way of setting out a story is supposed to be signifying, or what its purpose is beyond perhaps lending a sense of immediacy

maybe it was simply to make Girl, Woman, Other stand out from the pack.

The novel might be called a mosaic as it is told from twelve viewpoints, laid out, three to each, in four chapters, with a fifth multi-viewpoint chapter and Epilogue following on. Most of them, but not quite all, are women; some, but not all, are lesbians. There are connections between the narratives – mostly involving attendees at the first night of initial narrator Amma’s play The Last Amazon of Dahomey at the National.

It is the serious novel’s purpose to encapsulate society and Evaristo’s is certainly intended to be serious, dealing as it does with the forever fraught position of women through the ages (here from the 1890s on,) the perennial blight of man’s inhumanity to woman, the black experience (especially black women’s,) the endlessly changing meaning and practice of feminism but it is also subtle enough to illustrate that bad or controlling behaviour is not restricted to one sex.

The pieces of a mosaic laid side by side are intended to reveal a bigger picture and these do but perhaps in the manner of a jigsaw without its accompanying illustration and possibly with a few pieces missing. Then again, any individual novel can not capture the whole world.

Of Evaristo’s writing there can be little criticism. She embodies her narrators exquisitely and their psychologies are utterly believable. The things that happen to them and the way they behave are certainly plausible. That the Epilogue contrives a happy ending of sorts for two of them maybe goes against the grain of the foregoing but there can at times be shafts of light coming into the world.

Notwithstanding any of the above Girl, Woman, Other could not by any means be described as a rant. It is, simply, good fiction; doing what good fiction ought to do. Except in its depiction of the travails of women this book is about as far apart as it could be from its fellow Booker Prize sharer. Which only goes to show what a thankless task judging literary prizes must be.

Pedant’s corner:- “to provide captors for the abolished slave trade in the Americas, with outlaw slave ships outrunning the blockades to do business with him” (captives makes more sense,) “chomping at the bit” (the phrase is ‘champing’ at the bit,) “lips fulsome” (fulsome? Did Evaristo mean immoderately fawning/effusive or was she striving for an exaggeration of ‘full’?) “where Kofi did forty laps” (this was in a swimming pool; ‘forty lengths’ perhaps,) snuck (several times; sneaked,) “parking lot” (that would be a car park,) “after the sound of a thousand pairs of feet have stampeded” (this sentence’s subject, sound, is singular; so the verb ought to be ‘has stampeded’, but that would be an awkward construction. Rejig the sentence,) “when she did, the became friends” (they became friends,) “was sat” (was sitting,) “who was stood” (standing,) “the typical medley of buildings opposite are in silhouette” (the subject here is ‘medley’ which requires a singular verb form, not ‘are’. Rejig the sentence,) “get to know the lesbian thespians’” (I have no idea why thespians’ has that apostrophe. It’s a simple plural.)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Picador, 2020, 451 p.

Shuggie Bain cover

Firstly, I can understand why this won 2020’s Booker Prize. It’s very well written – and its subject matter, alcoholism, is one of those such prizes historically find worthy of honour. But the devil is in the detail. Most readers would probably have no problem here, but for me personally, the detail detracted from the overall experience. It wasn’t that there was a lot of USian usages – annoying though that can be, it would be fair enough in this case, Stuart has lived in the US for twenty years and the book was first published there – but some of that did not ring true to its West of Scotland setting, even though it was peppered with Scottish words such as crabbit and weans and is otherwise very recognisable. Neither is it the case that Picador simply went with the original transatlantic text; colour is spelled the British way and the characters wear trousers, not pants, but crucially some of the dialogue has USian phrases which Scottish speakers simply would not utter. Moreover, ‘zipper’ for ‘zip,’ ‘prior’ for ‘before’ and ‘aluminum,’ being untrue to its milieu, immediately haul a British reader completely out of the tale.

The novel is told in five sections, topped and tailed by “1992 The South Side” with “1981 Sighthill,” “1982 Pithead” and “1989 The East End” sandwiched between them. The first and last are relatively short, dealing with Shuggie Bain’s first steps in life without his mother Agnes. Sighthill was where Agnes had gone back to live with her mother and father having divorced her first husband, Brendan McGowan, to take up with Shuggie’s father, (big) Shug. This is a source of contention as Agnes’s family is Catholic and Shug is not. Pithead is the village to which Shug hauls the family off before abandoning them while the East End is where Agnes and Shuggie move to in his young adolescence.

Stuart makes much of the fact of Agnes’s Catholicism and the differences she perceives between her own diffidence and the apparent easy confidence of Protestants. I found it odd, though, that her mother Lizzie and Agnes herself should refer to Brendan as “that Catholic” and “the Catholic” rather than the more natural “Brendan.” At one point Agnes reveals Brendan only wanted a slave and a housekeeper. By contrast Shug is charismatic even though balding. He is also an inveterate womaniser, not the least of Agnes’s triggers for alcoholism.

The novel is an acute (the usual word deployed in these circumstances is unflinching) examination of alcoholism and its effect on Shuggie’s family. Even though she likes to keep herself as immaculately dressed as possible, loves her children and would do anything for them, nothing gets in the way of Agnes’s need for booze. The constant need to be alert, the awareness of the slightest nuance, the necessity to guard against Agnes harming herself, drive away both Shuggie’s sister, Catherine, and brother, Alexander, (Brendan’s children from Agnes’s first marriage) – in Catherine’s case as far as South Africa. There is a brief year’s respite helped a little by AA meetings but once precipitated off the wagon by her well-meaning but misguided new boyfriend Eugene, Agnes is doomed. As if that wasn’t enough to cope with Shuggie also has his fondness for dolls and figurines, lack of ability at football and even to walk like ‘normal’ boys to cope with.

There was one further odd note; Lizzie’s revelation beside Wullie’s death bed of an incident that had occurred on Wullie’s return from the Second World War. It seemed like an interpolation from a different book entirely. As to this one, it really ought to be titled Agnes Bain. Though it does require Shuggie to tell it, it is her story rather than his.

It’s very good though, bound to be in my books of the year.

Pedant’s corner:- “ignorant to the fact” (ignorant of the fact,) snuck (sneaked,) stour (several times; usually spelled ‘stoor’,) doubt (the usual spelling of this word for a cigarette end is ‘dout’. Stuart uses ‘doubt’ throughout,) sat (many times; sitting, or, seated,) “was stood” (was standing,) aluminum (aluminium, please,) trouseless (trouserless,) “four months prior” (four months previously,) “off of” (off; no ‘of’,) gotten (is an old Scottish usage but has nearly always now been replaced by ‘got’.) “‘Will you come visit us when we live in Africa?’” (the British usage is, ‘Will you come and visit us’; or ‘come to visit us’,) “‘he’s not showed up’” (shown up,) math (maths,) one character says ‘whant’, (this may have been an attempt to render the pronunciation of ‘want’ as ‘wahnt’. Scots would pronounce ‘wh’ as hw however, so ‘whant’ would be hwant, not ‘wahnt’,) “‘carrying on lit that’” (‘carrying on lik that’,) “the Kelvingrove Hall” (there is no such place. There is a Kelvin Hall, an erstwhile entertainment venue and latterly home to the Glasgow Museum of Transport before it moved to a purpose-built site, but this wasn’t it. By its description here the “grand building” concerned is the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, commonly referred to simply as Kelvingrove,) bisim (usually spelled besom,) “the rotary” (this was on a telephone; and usually called the dial,) “‘It was nice of you to come visit with us’” (just ‘visit us’; no ‘with’,) “plated neatly” (plaited; spelled correctly three lines above,) “‘I’d could be sure’” (I could be sure,) anyhows (x 3; I’ve never heard anyone from the West of Scotland put an ‘s’ on the end of ‘anyhow’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the clumsy, thick gusset of her black stockings, (stockings do not have a gusset. Here, and a few times later, Stuart uses ‘stockings’ when he means ‘tights’,) foustie (usually spelled foosty,) plimsolls (the West of Scotland term for these is ‘sandshoes’,) “When they banned the cane a few years before” (in Scotland the cane was not used for corporal punishment. What was used instead was the tawse, commonly called ‘the belt’,) “lit what” (lik what,) “closer in age with to Leek” (no ‘with’ needed,) “he gave her small round of applause” (a small round,) “Chernobyl and the nuclear explosion that had happened there” (it wasn’t a nuclear explosion. It was a normal, chemical explosion which blew the lid off the reactor and so released radiation.) “New Year’s in Scotland” ([x 2] is actually New Year; with no apostrophe ‘s’.) “Each of the buildings were identical” (Each of the buildings was identical,) “none of the drunks were his” (none …. was his,) zipper (zip,) “her held tilted back” (her head,) finger-er-ed (this was over a line break; finger-ed,) “corporation bus” (Corporation bus.)

The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

BCA, 1974, 331 p.

This book, an imagination of a siege during what became known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Krishnapur being an amalgamation of several besieged British Residencies,) is the second in the author’s loose trilogy examining the legacy of British imperial power. Troubles looked at the Irish independence struggle, The Siege of Krishnapur India, and The Singapore Grip the harbinger of that power unravelling in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Troubles won the Booker prize in 1970 and The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973.

The main viewpoint character is the man in charge of the Residency in Krishnapur, Mr Hopkins. He is known as the Collector because of his interest in the Great Exhibition, a then recent historical event which is mentioned many times in the book. Others include George Fleury, who has just arrived in Krishnapur with his recently widowed sister Miriam; the local medic, Dr Dunstaple, whose children Louise and Harry, an army officer, are living there; Dunstaple’s more modern minded colleague Dr McNab; the Magistrate, a devotee of phrenology; and Lucy Hughes, a dishonoured Englishwoman who when the siege starts is living in town on her own in a house called the dak bungalow.

The early chapters are devoted to laying out the course of the lives of the European inhabitants of the town, poetry readings for the ladies and so on, manifested in the petty jealousies and rivalries of both the men and the women. A hint of the impending revolt arrives when piles of chapatis begin to be left on people’s desks or doorsteps. The Collector realises this is an indicator of trouble but is at first much mocked for instructing earth barriers be erected round the Residency and the banqueting hall. Lives carry on almost as normal until the neighbouring cantonment of Captainganj falls and its survivors straggle into Krishnapur.

Some of the Collector’s thoughts are of the time, “Speaking a great deal in company is not an attractive quality in a young lady. A young lady with strong opinions is even worse,” but then again on the feelings Miriam expresses towards Lucy Hughes when she thinks Lucy is trying to entrap her brother, “in an attractive woman even faults and weaknesses are endearing.” On his rounds one day during the siege he reflects on women and the ‘natives’ as being alike, “It’s true,” he mused, “they’re just like children,” and, “Women are weak. We shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives.”

A hint of the twentieth century is present in some later thoughts. “Perhaps it is our fault that we keep them so much in idleness? Perhaps we should educate them more in the ways of the world. Perhaps it is us who have made them what they are?” Then the Victorian age resurrects itself. “But no. It’s their nature. Even a fine woman like Miriam is often malicious to others of her sex.”

Once the siege becomes prolonged the aura of complacency regarding British occupancy in India has been deflated. “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained.”

Over time there is a gradual decline of standards as hunger and sickness takes hold, the women sit about in their chemises and bodices, the two doctors quarrel in public over the correct treatment of cholera. Dr McNab’s demeanour does not help his cause, “Scots very often appear bleak in the eyes of the English,” but Dr Dunstaple’s attempt to disprove his colleague’s modern theory leads directly to him contracting the disease.

Despite it being serviceable enough there is something to the text that is unsatisfying, almost plodding. Too much is told, not shown. The characters, too, seem like types, rather than individuals. And (though perhaps this was the point,) there is not much of India here.

As to that Booker Prize, it was nigh on fifty years ago. I doubt The Siege of Krishnapur would win it in the present day.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for ‘seated’, “attah of roses” (attar of roses) “the military wre being made to look ridiculous” (the military was being made,) “‘if that attack us here’” (if they attack us here,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “there were a number of windows” (there was a number,) one “Eurasions” (elsewhere Eurasians,) “to staunch wounds” (stanch,) “a taciturn man from the Salt Agency called Barlow” (the Salt Agency is called Barlow?) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “rose to a crescendo” (to a climax, the crescendo is the rise,) “so many of the garrison was already dead” (were already dead,) “A handful of confident zemindars were standing” (a handful … was standing.) “There were a number of Brahmin priests” (there was a number,) “the dining room was to spacious” (too spacious.)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Canongate, 2012, 349 p.

The Garden of Evening Mists cover

Tan Twan Eng is the first Malaysian author whom I have read, though The Garden of Evening Mists is not a translation, being written in English and on the Booker Prize short list in 2012.

Narrator Teoh Yun Ling is a prominent Malaysian judge planning to retire as she is beginning to show the first signs of memory loss. During the Japanese occupation in the Second World War she – along with her sister, Yun Hong – had been imprisoned in an internment camp where Yun Ling suffered the loss of two fingers in a punishment (and Yun Hong was forced into being one of the jugun ianfu (military comfort women.) Yun Ling was the only survivor (“I was lucky.”) Post-war she made her name in legal circles by taking part in the War Crimes Tribunal as a prosecutor.

The novel is Yun Ling’s account of her life especially during the Malayan ‘Emergency’ of the 1950s when she briefly abandoned her legal career to try to fulfil her sister’s dream – following a visit to Japan in 1938 – of building her own Japanese garden. Despite her hatred of Japanese people she agreed to become a pupil of Nakimura Aritomo, a Japanese man living locally, who had once been the Emperor’s gardener but had come to Malaya – apparently in disgrace – before the war began, built a garden called Yugiri (the garden of evening mists of the title which, among others, utilises the principle of ‘borrowed scenery’) and several times during the war interceded with the occupiers to ease the lot of local Malays. Another principle character is Magnus, a Boer, who recounts the iniquities of the British treatment of Boer civilians during the Second Boer War in the original concentration camps as if to point out the lack of difference between Japanese and British. Nevertheless the war caused a frosting of the relationship between Magnus and Aritomo. (I note here that Asian names in the book are given in the Oriental style, family name first.)

Aritomo’s designs for the garden are rendered in the style of ukiyo-e prints (think Hokusai’s “Great Wave”) and he is also skilled in the art of horimono – whole body tattoos – both of which are not incidental to the unfolding secret of the book.

Tan weaves all these ingredients together into a compelling narrative, holding back information till just the right point, introducing complicating characters to build intrigue (for example the group of Japanese saying they wish to identify graves of the fallen but clearly with a different agenda,) illustrating the exigencies of life during the Emergency (which another author might have used as the book’s focus but Tan does not) and blending them all – including Yun Ling’s internment experiences – into the plot.

A slight clumsiness with information dumping early on and the speed with which Yun Ling comes to terms with Aritomo mean the novel doesn’t quite scale the absolute highest literary peaks but it is at times exquisitely written. It was certainly worth a place on that Booker prize short list. No surprise it didn’t win though. It was up against Bring up the Bodies.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘five week’s time’” (five weeks’ time,) “‘For goodness’ sake’” (if the apostrophe is there ‘for goodness’s sake, better to leave it out.) “‘My mother died when I was a four’” (when I was four,) snuck (sneaked,) in a list of Japanese gardening tools – named in italics – their translations are given immediately after, but the first translation ‘mallet’ is still in italics. “‘Less chances of an ambush’” (‘Less chance’, or, ‘Fewer chances’, but it was in dialogue.) “‘He’s works in Bangkok’” (He works in Bangkok,) miniscule (minuscule,) “sharing them with Yun Ling and the other women in my hut” (it is Yun Ling narrating this, so ‘sharing them with Yun Hong’.) “A line of cars were parked” (strictly; a line …. was parked.) “The two men looked at each another” (‘at each other’; or, ‘at one another’,) tealeaves (tea-leaves.)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bloomsbury, 2017, 354 p

 Lincoln in the Bardo cover

This book won the Booker Prize in 2017. While I recognise it is stylistically inventive – the tale is told through a series of short passages (none more than three pages long at most, some containing only three or so words,) apparent extracts from accounts or memoirs of the time and dialogue “spoken” by the novel’s characters, some of whom continue others’ sentences, and all appended by the source or speaker credited with their identity in a line or three whose text is aligned to the centre of the page – I confess I was a bit underwhelmed. To me it seemed as if the text layout could as easily have been presented as in a play (ie with the speaker identified in capitals on the left) without making any material difference to the content. That also would have had the advantage of signalling the speaker before the dialogue commenced, instead of having to wait for that if the passage ran on to a page which required to be turned to reveal it. I can see, though, it may well work better as a dramatic presentation on film or TV, particularly the voice-intercutting parts.

The concept, Abraham Lincoln’s dead son Willie continues an existence beyond death in a kind of limbo – the bardo of the title; a Tibetan term, though I did not notice that word in the text. Lincoln’s visits to his dead son’s body create a disturbance in the bardo (for its denizens can see and hear him and others in the corporeal world) as much as they were commented on by his contemporaries.

The bardo’s occupants, for whatever reason prevented from moving on to heaven or hell, reveal details of themselves and their lives, and make attempts to communicate with Lincoln, feeling his thoughts as he strolls through the cemetery or sits in the mausoleum where Willie’s body lies. They do not refer to coffins or caskets or tombs. Each lies in, or rises from, a “sick-box”, they still retain hope of returning to their former life and in many cases do not recognise the passing of time.

For children, lingering in the bardo is thought to be undesirable. Our two main voices, hans vollman and roger bevins iii (occupants’ names are always given in lower case italics in the text) encourage Willie Lincoln to pass through. For longer term bardo lingerers such a moving on is accompanied by “the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Willie’s refusal to do so and realisation through experiencing his father’s thoughts that he is in fact dead, provoke the novel’s crisis.

Though at times I found myself nodding off I doubt this was the book’s fault. (I did not read it in the most propitious circumstances.) Saunders writes well and provides plenty of incident and memoir while his prose is easy to read. But I constantly found myself wondering, what is the point of it? Which part of the human condition is this meant to illuminate? By definition dead people are dead and cannot communicate back to us – and they do not in this novel (even if they do think they influence Lincoln’s actions, and those of other corporeal characters, in a small way.) Perhaps I am more attuned to the idea of fiction set in an afterlife than those swept up in the buzz surrounding the book, less struck by the idea of it being somehow original.

Pedant’s corner:- many of the characters “speak” – or their voices are rendered in – their own particular demotic, with spelling and so on signalling such. I did not note these instances. Otherwise: “but none are saved, all are lost,” (none is saved.)

New Model Army by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 282p.

 New Model Army cover

You know that you’re reading something a bit out of the ordinary when the first sentence of a novel is “I am not the hero of this story.” Whether or not this statement is reliable is a question that can only be answered by reading the whole but, coupled with the narrator’s knowingness about how a novel ought to be structured, shows a strong authorial awareness of his craft. It is a consciously literary sentence and the novel as a whole bears out its promise. I didn’t much take to Roberts’s 2011 novel By Light Alone but was more impressed by his much earlier Stone. A back cover quote on New Model Army from Kim Stanley Robinson says, “Roberts should have won the 2009 Booker Prize.” (That would have been for Roberts’s prior book Yellow Blue Tibia which I have yet to read. New Model Army has literary claims to have won it in 2010. I can see why it was not considered, though.)

The New Model Army of the title, whose members have named it Pantegral, is – like other NMAs of its sort – a truly democratic one. Enabled by the internet – its communications and information web is referred to as a “Wiki” throughout – to communicate and discuss in real time, they vote on proposals on tactical and strategic matters and act on the majority decision. This contrasts with the hierarchical, feudal structures of the traditional state army against which it fights – and repeatedly defeats.

The battle sequences are believably described though the background to the war that is taking place in a disintegrating UK is a trifle – if amusingly – far-fetched. In addition the ease with which the NMA’s members access advanced ordinance wasn’t fully obvious, the rest of life in England, which is where the first segment is set, seems little different from the present where such access is limited to say the least. (Or I hope it is.)

An echo of Stone is in the narration. Here the narrative is a kind of memoir addressed as if to a US colonel by whom Block is being interrogated and who wishes to use him as a weapon against NMAs. Unless we are to infer that later Block returns to the US this doesn’t quite work in the second long section when Block falls into the hands of an Alsatian NMA known as Schäferhund, nor in the very much shorter third segment.

New Model Army has important things to say about why wars occur and the nature of humanity – what we do in general and why we do it. Treating not only with the evolution of humanity beyond feudalism into the “giants” of the NMAs but also with the literary perennials of love and death, it packs a lot into its 282 pages.

(Unfortunately there was a span count of 3, though; plus 1 “lay.”)

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