When the Booker Prize was inaugurated, prizes for literature were rather looked down upon, they just didn’t make much impact. Tom Maschler looked at the huge success of the French Prix Goncourt, and campaigned for an English prize with the aim of stimulating interest in British literature. Convinced this idea had legs, he started to look for a sponsor…
Booker Brothers, a catering business, had, through its MD Jock Campbell’s friendship with Ian Fleming, set up a subsidiary to purchase the copyright of successful authors’ works, exploiting a UK tax loophole. They were persuaded to fund the prize and even though they were warned that it could take a few years to get established, even in the first year the winning book by P H Newby made the bestseller lists after being awarded the prize.
The rest, as they say is history…
1969 – Something to Answer For by P H Newby
Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies
Something to Answer For could be taken as an example of how much the Booker Prize has changed over the decades. When P H Newby won the inaugural prize in 1979 there was none of the hoo-ha associated with the award today. No bookmakers taking bets on the likely winner, for example, no marketing buzz in the bookshops and definitely no lavish televised event to announce the judges’ choice. Instead Newby was informed of his success by post.
And yet it’s also an example of how little has changed in the determination of the judges to select winners that demand something more of their readers than their ability to follow a good story. From Midnight’s Children to Wolf Hall and more recently A History of Seven Killings the Booker Prize has frequently chosen novels that dare to do something different.
Something to Answer For is most definitely not straightforward narration, though it begins on fairly safe territory with the main character, a chap called Townrow, asked by the widow of a friend to travel to Egypt. He arrives in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez crisis. Before he meets the widow he visits a bar where he was once a regular. He gets hit over the head. From there everything becomes confused and uncertain. Townrow operates in a kind of dream in which he recalls he was once married and that he is Irish. But he’s not certain either of those things are true. As the novel progresses the boundaries between truth and reality become ever more blurred. The reader becomes as baffled as the protagonist.
Very early on in the novel a question comes up in a conversation about whether Britain has “something to answer for“ in relation to the Suez crisis. There is no clear answer just as its uncertain what this novel is ultimately about. Although well written it feels dated and lacks cohesion.
Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Bookertalk
1970 – The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens
Reviewed by Ali Hope
When The Elected Member by Bernice Reubens won the 1970 Booker Prize, the prize was still in its infancy – just the second year it had been awarded. It is a funny, poignant novel of great intelligence and humanity.
Norman is a brilliant barrister. He was the clever one of his close-knit Jewish family, the apple of his father, Rabbi Zweck’s, eye. At forty-one Norman has become a drug addict: hooked on amphetamines he is confined to the bedroom bequeathed to him by his mother. Norman is subject to hallucinations and paranoia, seeing silver fish all over his room.
He wondered whether in fact, he had always been an outsider in the family, and whether he had so placed himself, or whether his parents and sisters had so elected him.
Norman’s father is beside himself. Now retired from his duties as a Rabbi he works alongside his daughter in the shop beneath their home and worries constantly about his clever son. Bella, Norman’s unmarried sister, still wears her childhood white ankle socks, frozen in the past.
Rabbi Zweck, consumed with sadness and guilt over his son, calls in the doctor (not for the first time) deaf to Norman’s hysterical protests. He sits sadly beside his son as he is taken off to hospital, feeling he has failed him. Rubens’ portrait of this sad, aging traditional man is deeply poignant, his love for his son is tangible, but he feels unequal to tackling Norman’s problems, and wishes to get his hands on the person who gave him the drugs. Rabbi Zweck is hilariously (and heart-breakingly) naïve about what type of person Norman may have got his pills from.
Confined to the hospital – Norman is given some pink pills to stop his hallucinations, which Norman deeply distrusts. Sharing a ward with Norman is a man calling himself ‘Minister’; he claims to be the Minister of Health – and he has a supply of ‘white’ – amphetamines – which he is prepared to sell at a pound a day. Norman thinks he can persuade Bella to bring him some money. He becomes fixated on securing the white tablets from Minister.
Back at home Rabbi Zweck remembers his other daughter Esther– who he hasn’t seen since her marriage to a non-Jewish man. Bella is desperate to heal the breach between father and son, prepared even to turn a blind eye to Norman stealing money from her bag during a hospital visit. During visits to Norman, Rabbi Zweck is introduced to Billy, another patient on Norman’s ward for years, andi is drawn to Billy with great sympathy, feeling he should at least be given the dignity of the name William, as he is no longer a child. Rabbi Zweck is terrified that Billy’s fate will be Norman’s, searching for clues that Billy is a far worse case than his brilliant son.
There are unspoken misunderstandings and secrets from the past that have brought this family to where they are, and Rubens explores her characters’ lives with compassion knowing that where there is disharmony and misunderstanding there is also great love. The ending may leave the reader with a little lump in their throat.
Ali Hope blogs at Heavenali
1970 – Troubles by J G Farrell – ‘The Lost Booker’
Reviewed by Helen Parry
In 1971 the rules for submitting books for the Booker Prize changed, resulting in many novels published in 1970 becoming ineligible and missing out. Forty years later a panel of judges was formed to award the Lost Man Booker Prize to one of those novels, and the winner was J.G. Farrell’s Troubles.
‘I hope not to be so bigoted,’ said the Major. ‘Surely there’s no need to abandon one’s reason simply because one is in Ireland.’
‘In Ireland you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it.’
In 1919, finally discharged from his traumatic service in the British Army, the Major travels to Ireland to meet his fiancée Angela Spencer, to whom he somehow became betrothed on leave. Angela lives in the Majestic, a mouldering country pile now hotel specialising in decrepit Anglo-Irish gentlewomen and sinister cats. Although the Major’s first impressions of the hotel are less than favourable – rotting sheep’s head in his bedroom, thick layers of grime and cobwebs over everything, horrendous food – and his engagement proves short-lived, he stays on as Edward, Angela’s staunchly Unionist father, attempts to defy the rising tide of the independence movement. Farcical and tragic, alert to nuance and to history, this novel brilliantly explores the collapse of Empire in Ireland and the suffering of both sides in the process. It is also very funny; Farrell excels in drawing eccentric yet complex characters and it is these, even more than its rich and playful symbolism, which constitute the great delight of this novel.
The Majestic is not unlike Gormenghast in its dusty sprawl, and the Major is often lost in its labyrinthine corridors and dozens of abandoned rooms. The building seems to defy the laws of physics, with ‘an extraordinary proliferation of turrets and battlements and crenellated cat-walks that hung from the building amid rusting iron balconies and French windows with drooping shutters’ encircling an enormous glass ballroom. The Palm Court is particularly oppressive, the plants pressing against the glass, devouring the furniture and pushing their roots, like thighs, ‘thick, white, hairy, muscular’, up through the floors of neighbouring rooms. Cracks are spreading across the walls; chunks of plaster crash from the ceilings. Obscenity and even violence lurks beneath its surface. It’s hyper-real; though perhaps we know, from the dissonance between Angela’s letters to the Major and what he finds at the Majestic, that we should expect our ideas about truth to be prodded in this novel, and that what people say is not always what they mean. As Edward gradually abdicates even nominal responsibility for the decaying hotel, it becomes hard not to see it as emblematic of the imperial project in Ireland, neglected and misunderstood by the British, doomed, as we know from the outset, to violent conflagration. Through the kindly, diffident Major, we watch the Troubles unfold.
Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry
1971 – In a Free State by V S Naipaul
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
I’ve had a long-standing dream to be on a judging panel for literature (and I wouldn’t say no to culinary judging, either). But comments from the 1971 Booker judges have made me rethink my career goals, as it turns out that the year wasn’t exactly a parade of literary genius. Saul Bellow – a Nobel laureate himself – was less than complimentary about the offerings: while he deemed five per cent interesting, “for the rest it was like meeting virgins, who are neither wise nor foolish, but just bald.” I like to think, though, that 1971’s winner, In A Free State by V. S. Naipaul, really earned its place in that interesting percentage – together with contenders such as Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Lessing – and that while it’s probably not what got Naipaul his Nobel, it’s more than just the best of a bad bunch.
In A Free State is a story suite of three – two short stories and a novella – all centering around an overarching theme: racial otherness. The title novella is set in an unnamed African country, recently independent, still tied to colonial powers, and on the brink of civil war. There Bobby, a colonial official, is about to return from a conference in the country’s capital to his colonial compound, when Linda, a colleague’s wife, persuades him to give her a lift to the same destination. What ensues is a road trip of a kind, with the tension high both in and outside the car: under pressure to reach their destination before the curfew, Bobby is less than enthusiastic about having company, while outside a war looms.
It is exactly this atmosphere of impending doom that characterizes the book and becomes its main strength. Naipaul has said that writing his breakthrough novel, A House For Mr Biswas – widely regarded as a comic masterpiece – a decade earlier had left him a changed man, and that “one has been damaged.” This is tangible in the dark tones and the sense of loathing everything in the novella, putting the reader at unease. Whether it’s Bobby’s disgust at Linda seeking an extra-marital turn to their journey, or their pit stops at grotty, hiddenly hostile establishments, there is nothing likeable about the characters nor the surroundings – the only likeable feature is the author’s skill needed to create this emotional effect.
But fact that that this skill does not extend to other aspects of the work is what earns it the title of ‘not Naipaul’s best.’ The narrative doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface. The characters, for example, remain as distant to the reader as they remain to each other: the couple of times that Naipaul brushes on Bobby’s homosexuality come across as detached afterthoughts to the rest of the story, Linda’s motives are barely even alluded to, and the colonel whose compound the travellers spend a night at, is reduced to a raging, bizarre caricature when his situation – acknowledging that his power is fast waning and that his employees are likely to kill him – would have provided material for much richer character development.
Although not the brightest star in the Booker backlog nor Naipaul’s oeuvre, In A Free State has managed to stand the test of time, which is particularly impressive given how much of a tinderbox its subject matter is. Nearly half a century on, in an era with incentives to decolonialize university curricula and rows over diversity at publishing houses, the novel succeeds in raising burningly actual questions. Here its bleakness and shallowness turn into a strength: viewing the country and its people through Bobby’s colonial gaze draws a poignant parallel with much of today’s discourse. As much as the reader wishes that the characters’ attitudes in were hopelessly outdated, In A Free State serves as an uncomfortable reminder that they are, in fact, very much not. With the gift of hindsight, that alone makes Naipaul’s novel a worthy Booker winner.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist
1972 – G by John Berger
Reviewed by Marina Sofia
John Berger’s G. was never going to be one of the most revered or widely-read books amongst the Booker Prize winners. In fact, it was a surprise winner in 1972, especially since the author was highly critical of the sponsors and promptly shared the prize money with the Black Panther movement. It is not even one of John Berger’s best books. Too experimental to appeal to the common reader, too schoolboyish-smutty in its description of sex to appeal to the highbrow, with a main character that is too unknowable to be truly appreciated, it is one of the prizewinners that has quietly sunk into obscurity. And yet… despite all the warnings about this retelling of Don Juan set at the turn of the 19th century and just before the First World War, I found myself enjoying it.
It is surprisingly accessible, although slow-moving by modern standards. We get to know an awful lot about G’s parents and grandparents before he even makes an appearance. There are digressions at every step of the way. Most of them are brilliant and quite funny riffs, but they certainly do not help to streamline the story. In fact, it is a resolutely ‘foreign’ style of book: not as plot or character driven as the Anglo-Saxon world likes its novels to be. This is a novel of ideas, but the ideas do not come raining down easily on your head. Instead, you have to work to unearth them from a messy heap of autumn leaves, which contain some treasures. And yet there is a link to a certain tradition in British literature. It has all the knowing authorial intervention and picaresque inventiveness of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. It has the meandering structure and wit of Tristram Shandy. Above all, it has that juxtaposition of world events and personal ones which reminds me of the diary of Samuel Pepys. No prizes for guessing whether world or personal events seem more important to Berger’s protagonist. Garibaldi’s insurrection is a mad scramble through the streets of Milan with a Roman girl; G’s sexual awakening has connections to the Boer War, the horrors of trench warfare are contrasted with G’s philandering with other men’s wives. Even lesser-known incidents and real-life historical figures are used. In 1910 aviator Jorge Chávez crashes immediately after completing the first air crossing of the Alps from Brig to Domodossola, while G is engaged in a tryst with the hotel chambermaid. Berger makes the point that G. tries to avoid history, to be a selfish onlooker all his life, but in the end events catch up with him.
Of course, this was also written during the last hurrah of the postmodernist novel in the 1970s, so we have to contend with many of its devices, which can be either exhilarating or tiresome, depending in what mood you are when you pick up the book. For intertextuality, Giacomo Casanova’s Memoirs might be an obvious link, but other references are more obscure. We have a pastiche of Victorian novels like David Copperfield, earnest German Bildungsroman, sweeping family sagas and adventure stories. It has an unashamed metafictional strand to it: the author advances, retreats, comments, makes notes, discusses the situation of women, brings in passages from historical textbooks, is coy in describing sex at one moment and then explicit the other. Above all, postmodernism feels like it doesn’t make things easy for the reader: no punctuation marks, rapid changes of pace and scenery, fractured timelines. But if you are willing to overlook these very real obstacles as well as any prejudices you might have about postmodernism, you may find that G. has got an odd charm of its own.
Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write
1973 – The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell
Reviewed by Guy Fraser-Sampson
J.G. Farrell has always been one of my favourite novelists, arguably one of the greats, and it’s mysterious that great writers such as he and Lawrence Durrell should be so little regarded today (Durrell never won the Booker and was only once short-listed). Farrell at least had the last laugh, for in 2010 he was awarded the ‘lost’ Booker prize for Troubles, which fell through a gap in 1970 when the prize switched from a prior year to a current year basis. This meant that (at least retrospectively) he became the first person to win the prize twice since he also won it in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur.
Actually he should also have won it in 1978 for The Singapore Grip, but thereby hangs a tale. Farrell, always a troublesome character, used his acceptance speech in 1973 to attack the sponsor’s business ethics, despite having been expressly warned to steer clear of politics. Booker were furious, and the prize was very nearly discontinued as a result. So, despite The Singapore Grip (my personal favourite of Farrell’s ‘Empire’ trilogy) being immeasurably better than Iris Murdoch’s pallid The Sea, The Sea Farrell wasn’t even shortlisted, as nobody wanted to run the risk of him being allowed anywhere a microphone ever again.
The trilogy are all set against the background of a breakdown in British imperial power: immediate and permanent in the case of the first and third (Ireland and Singapore), but brief and temporary in the case of the second (Indian independence still lay a long way in the future). In ‘SofK’, as it became known in literary circles, Farrell shows up Victorian racial and sexual attitudes as the ridiculous social mores they undoubtedly were, while recognising that they provide something for the beleaguered garrison and civilians alike to hold onto as their world disintegrates around them.
As with all great novels, there are characters and scenes that stay with you long after reading. The patriarchal Collector, one of those many imperial officials scattered around in odd places with odd titles. Lucy, the young woman who incurs the displeasure of the resident memsahibs, but redeems herself through serving tea. Two men attempting clumsily and embarrassedly to remove with book covers a swarm of insects which has attached itself to her. The final escape attempt, shot through with bizarre images and dark humour.
I have a fine biography of Farrell by Lavinia Greacen, an uncomfortable read at times as he exemplified the principle that fine artists do not always make fine human beings. Uncomfortable, but riveting, and should it prompt you to go back and re-read the three Empire novels then so much the better.
Guy Fraser-Sampson is the author of The Hampstead Murders, the 5th book will be out in November.
1974 – Tied – The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies
The Conservationist was published twenty years before apartheid was outlawed in South Africa. The change robbed the book of some of its political urgency and edge but its message – about racial inequality and blindness to reality – sadly remains as relevant today as it did in 1974.
Gordimer’s central figure is Mehring, a white South African capitalist who buys a 400-acre farm because it makes a convenient location for trysts with his mistress. The bonus is that it’s tax deductible. Farming starts off as a bit of a hobby for Mehring, one he fits in at weekends between business trips overseas. His attitude is that it should operate like a business with all his assets – his crops, calves and his employees – do what is expected. “No farm is beautiful unless it’s productive,” he tells his mistress. But Gordimer’s narrative repeatedly punches holes in Mehring’s version of himself and his country and deflates his sense of self-worth.
He thinks he knows how to look after the land. He believes too that he is a fair and generous employer, one who easily engages in good humoured banter with his workers. The reality is that the labourers laugh behind his back and largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. His Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city while his mistress points out that his profit is down to the starvation wages he pays his workers.
Even Mehring’s belief he has a physical and emotional affinity with the land is challenged. In one scene he has an almost mystical sensation when he walks through the fields early one morning:
Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But death and violence lie just beneath the surface of this rural idyll, emerging quite literally in the body of a murder victim dumped on the farm. The white policeman orders him buried in a shallow grave. As if in protest, nature rebels. A drought becomes a flood that destroys the farm and brings the body back to the surface. Gordimer’s message is clear: this black anonymous victim is the real possessor of the land; not Mehring.
Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Bookertalk
1974 – Tied – Holiday by Stanley Middleton
Reviewed by Annabel
Some time ago, I picked up a copy of Holiday at a book sale, only knowing that it had shared the 1974 Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. I’d otherwise never heard of Middleton, so I was surprised to find this was the 14th novel of his 44-novel career! I must admit I nearly gave up reading the book after the first couple of pages, which open with a chap musing about his life at church while the service goes on around him, but then a sentence caught my attention – “Here sprawled a man who’d left his wife…” – and I realised there would be a story underneath all the impressionistic ramblings.
Edwin Fisher is taking a week’s holiday by himself at an East coast seaside resort. He has left his wife, Meg, after their marriage became so tortured following a family tragedy that he couldn’t stand it anymore. Imagine his surprise when, on that first evening, he goes into a backstreet pub to find his father-in-law there. His in-laws are on holiday too, staying at the area’s finest hotel rather than a guest house like Edwin. Fisher’s week away thus becomes a strange mixture of sitting on the beach, walking, drinking with the other hotel guests, and meetings with Vernon who is trying to persuade Meg, who is obviously mentally ill, to take him back and effect a reconciliation. We eventually piece together what happened and the state of Edwin and Meg’s marriage.
It’s a strange and pretty humourless book, taking place mostly in Edwin’s mind. It’s rambling and verbose with descriptions of Edwin’s surroundings, then an occasional coarse thought may interrupt the flow. These were discomforting – not what you expect from a middle-class novel in which not a lot actually happens – and they lay Edwin’s mind bare on the page. I was a teenager when Holiday was published, and I didn’t really recognise Edwin’s world – it felt more like I imagine the 1950s to have been than the 1970s, although the mention of ‘longhairs’ dates it as later.
Kingsley Amis, C P Snow and Beryl Bainbridge were also shortlisted that year alongside Gordimer and Middleton. I find it odd that this book won over them, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it or the style in which it was written, but reading it was an experience.
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.
1975 – Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Reviewed by Jane
I bought this book many years ago, when I was a poor student with a very small book budget who relied heavily on her local library, and when I picked it up to re-read I congratulated my younger self on a very wise investment.
Heat and Dust moves back and forth between two stories: the story of Olivia who runs away from her British husband in the India of the 1920s; and the story of the British granddaughter of Olivia’s husband and his second wife, who goes to Satipur some fifty years because she is curious about the family scandal and its colonial past, because she hopes to find out what became of Olivia
Olivia is newly married and a little adrift in her new life. She is curious and wants to understand more about the people and places around her, and that doesn’t sit well with the other British wives, who treat Indian religion and culture with disdain. When the other women withdraw from the town Olivia chooses to remain with her husband, but she finds the hours when he is working very long, and she is drawn into the spell of the charming but disreputable Nawab, a minor Indian prince. Before long she is spending most of her days in his company…
As she learns about Olivia’s life, the unnamed narrator finds herself walking in her footsteps. Their experiences are very different though, because during the British Raj Olivia was isolated from the ‘real India’ by class, caste and custom whatever her wishes may have been, and in post-independence India her step-granddaughter is able to live amongst Indians, she is free to explore their country, and she can make her own decisions about how to live her life …
I love this book for its lyrical and evocative writing, for the way that it flows so beautifully, for the way that engages me in both stories, for the way it moves so naturally between those two stories, and for the way that those two stories almost merge in a conclusion that is somehow both startling and entirely natural.
The two stories are of their time, and yet the book feels timeless. I hesitate to call it a classic, but I definitely do call it an extraordinarily accomplished piece of fiction writing.
Jane blogs at Beyond Eden Rock
1976 – Saville by David Storey
Reviewed by Jodie Robson
“A vital theme of our age…” *
It’s difficult to see exactly why David Storey won the ’76 Booker with Saville because he’s not exactly covering new ground – he’d been there before, most notably with what probably remains his best-known work, This Sporting Life (made into one of the iconic films of my youth by Lindsay Anderson), and with the play In Celebration. If you had to sum up his works in three words, they would be “miner’s son” and “alienation”, though I suppose you might equally choose “kitchen sink” and “bathos”. Monty Python had made a cruel but clever skit on In Celebration in 1969, which you would think might be enough to put anyone off tackling the subject of miners’ sons ever again, but Storey went solidly on, doing what he was familiar with and good at.
Because he is good at it. Saville is a very readable novel, full of echoes of Sons and Lovers. The story of Colin, born in the 1930s and growing up in a mining village in wartime and post-war England, is essentially a coming-of-age novel, starting before his birth and culminating in his decision to leave his home town. It’s readable even though Colin is a rather unlikeable character, increasing alienated and bitter as he grows into adulthood, rejecting his parental values while continuing in many ways to apply them. His parents had lost their artistic first child, and are determined that Colin will have opportunities that they lacked, pushing him into a scholarship at school and then to teacher-training college. He agrees to the latter rather than going to university because his parents and two younger brothers will be reliant on his income to supplement his father’s meagre wages. But inevitably, his “betterment”, with his increasing disengagement from his family and surroundings, is the cause of conflict, particularly when his brother Steven is left to follow his own path, even if it means becoming a collier. And ironically, it isn’t Colin whose income will improve the circumstances of the family (and may even lead to an indoor lavatory), but Steven’s, when he is signed on as a professional footballer.
Despite Monty Python’s mockery, the theme of class and alienation was important in post-war Britain, and this rather late contribution to the genre has the benefit of a degree of hindsight, although the crucial question, whether it is possible to offer wider opportunities without causing bitterness and resentment on both sides, is never answered. As a piece of social history it’s undoubtedly of value, and as an example of the sort of slow, uneventful, brooding literature English novelists used to be rather good at it has considerable merit, but I fear modern readers may lose patience with both its argument and pace.
* The quote is from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Working-Class Playwright”
Jodie Robson’s blog is Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
1977 – Staying On by Paul Scott
Reviewed by Harriet
Many years ago – in 1984 to be exact – there was a brilliant series on TV called The Jewel in the Crown. It was based on four books by Paul Scott which came to be known as the Raj Quartet. These books were set in India in the 1940s, and dealt with the lives of a collection of mainly upper-class army people who, as the war came to an end and independence dawned for India, were forced to deal with the repercussions of those events and their effect on the quality of their lives. Most people by the end had decided to pack up and leave, to go ‘home’, even though they may not have lived there for a large proportion of their lives. But there were exceptions: a few people who dreaded the thought of the climate and the reduction in domestic comfort, and decided to stay on. In 1977, Paul Scott took a couple of very minor characters from the Quartet and looked at their lives decades after that decision. The result was Staying On, and the novel won the Booker in 1977.
Staying On focuses on Lucy Smalley and her husband, ex-Colonel Tusker Smalley. They’ve moved around quite a bit since Partition, but for the past few years have been living in a slightly shabby annexe of Smith’s Hotel in the small town of Pankot. Smith’s was once the town’s only hotel, but it’s now dwarfed by the much larger and tackier Shiraz next door, managed by the terrifying Mrs Bhoolaboy, who is served (in every sense) by her mild Christian husband, who is known as Billy Boy by Tusker, his drinking companion.
Tusker is a man of few words – his favourite utterance seems to be ‘Ha!’ – and Lucy, much more thoughtful and voluble, has struggled for most of her life to get an idea of what Tusker wants and why he wants it. They have a servant, Ibrahim, who Tusker periodically sacks, only to take him back a day or two later. We see quite a lot of the servants – Mrs Bhoolaboy’s maid Minnie, who started life as an ayah to a new baby in the Raj Quartet, and the mali Joseph, who takes great pride in cutting the grass, though Tusker, for complicated reasons, pretends he doesn’t exist. It’s fascinating to see how the servants relate to their white employers, once their rulers – they are under no illusions, but there’s obviously still some affection, though perhaps a questionable amount of loyalty.
Most of the action is told through Lucy’s musings and memories. Gradually as the novel progresses we learn the details of the marriage – how impressed Lucy had been by the smart young army officer who came into the bank where she worked, and her visions of an army wedding, with an arch of swords for them to walk through, which in the event, like the rest of her dreams, did not materialise. Now Tusker’s health is failing, and Lucy realises she has no idea of what her financial position will be if he dies before her. Much of the latter part of the novel is devoted to her efforts to get him to tell her, and eventually, unable to bring himself to tell her face to face he writes her a long letter which does at least give her the information she wants. It’s not much, but it’s a letter she treasures, ‘the only love letter she had ever received’.
This is an extraordinarily lovely book. It’s full of wry comedy but essentially an extremely moving portrait of a marriage in which almost zero communication takes place but in which somehow it’s clear that love exists, even if never expressed. Tusker is a brilliant character, infuriating and irascible, obstinate and stubborn but not without a good heart of sorts. Lucy is more complicated, given to stubbornness and irritability of her own, but facing almost insuperable odds in trying to keep the peace in her difficult marriage. We know by the end – before that, in fact – that she will be left a widow, and we assume she will finally go ‘home’, but despite her misgivings, I think we can be sure that she’s going to be OK – she’s a survivor.
Harriet is one of the Shiny editors.
1978 – The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Reviewed by Gill Davies
In its early sections, The Sea, The Sea is an old-fashioned theatrical farce up-graded for sophisticated middle class readers. Characters come in through the equivalent of the french windows saying, “I love you” or “why are you such a bastard?” instead of “anyone for tennis”, but the mood is very similar. Charles Arrowby is an actor who has retired to a run-down house by the sea, aiming to avoid former colleagues, friends, family and lovers. Instead they appear with increasing frequency to pester, cajole, insult or adore him. He has had a long career in the theatre and a string of women lovers, all of whom – it emerges – he has treated rather badly. He narrates the novel, always presenting himself in the best possible light. His impermanent relationships are traced (by him) to the loss of a girl, the only love of his life, whom he had expected to marry. By coincidence (and there are many of these in the novel) she turns out to be living in the same village, married and with a grown-up adopted son. From this point the plot turns on Arrowby’s attempts to persuade her to leave her husband and their suburban bungalow, and run away with him. The novel becomes increasingly bizarre and unhinged with attempted murder, death by drowning, a kidnap, processions of former lovers and their bitter spouses, and the intermittent appearance of Charles’s Buddhist cousin James who may have been a spy.
Once you realise that the whole thing is barmy it can be quite diverting. I remember spending the weeks immediately after my university finals reading all the Iris Murdoch novels one after another. Their cold wit seemed well suited to my over-heated condition. However, this one didn’t work for me – probably because I’m so much older but also because the pantomime began to annoy rather than absorb me. You don’t expect to care for Murdoch’s characters, or to find them psychologically complex, but they do go on! Nevertheless, Murdoch’s satirical portrait of Arrowby’s monstrous self-absorption (and his disgusting meals) and the histrionics of his theatrical friends can be very funny. (Though at 500 pages it took patience to persist with the novel to the end.) It was the fourth time Murdoch had been nominated, having published 19 novels. She divided readers as she no doubt divided the juries. But in 1978 they finally gave her the Booker.
Reviewed by Gill Davies