I’m having a great time doing the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with my fellow readers. The only frustration is that I don’t have enough time to post about my reading here and comment/respond to comments on other people’s posts. I’m too busy reading (and dealing with the rest of life) to blog about my reading properly. But since the last time I posted here, I’ve finished three more books, for a total of seven completed, six to go. I finished The Green Road on audio, and it definitely won’t be making my short list. I lump it in my mind with the Anne Tyler novel, except it’s not as good as that one. They are similar in their focus on family drama and in their straightforward realism. But I found the Tyler to be richer and more complex. I’m not sure that Tyler will make my short list — in fact she probably won’t. One of the things I’m discovering from this reading is that I value books that are something other than straightforwardly realistic family dramas. These books are valuable in their own way, but something in me doesn’t want to give them prizes. This is something I’ll be thinking about further.
I also finished Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and I also lump it in my mind with the Tyler and Enright as being another realistic family drama. But this one is the best of the lot. In fact if “realistic family drama” is a category I decide should be represented on my short list (not sure about this), then Clegg would get the spot. His novel is the sparest and most evocative of them all. He tells his story through many different perspectives, and the voices work alongside and against each other to add up to a complex whole. He touches on race, class, and sexuality in a manner that is both light and deep at the same time.
But then there is Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings, which is another creature entirely. This one is definitely getting on my short list. It’s a large novel in multiple senses — long and ambitious. It’s about Jamaica in the 1970s and beyond, about politics, drugs, violence, gangs, music, and yes, family drama. The language is what stands out to me the most; we get many different voices and each one is unique. I felt like I was living in the minds of these characters, and I loved it, even when the characters were terrible, terrible people. It was a hard novel to take a lot of the time — it’s full of horrible violence and cruelty and definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s confusing at times. But James has control of the plotting as well as the language, and it all comes together beautifully.
It’s so hard to compare these very different books! James’s originality and scope stand out to me, and how could Tyler’s novel stand up to it? But Tyler has great facility with language and insight into human nature in her own way, even if it doesn’t stand out in the way James’s work does. But this process is making clear to me how much more I value attempts at ambitious newness than more familiar novelistic styles, even if they are done particularly well.