Simón, Inés and Davíd had to flee and now come to Estrella where they hide among fruit pickers. Quickly it becomes obvious that Davíd is not an ordinary child, he asks a lot of questions and at the same time his view of the world cannot really be understood. When he is enrolled in the Academy of Dance – public schools are no option for obvious reasons – he feels comfortable and at home. The school’s strange philosophy seems to give him everything he needs and dancing becomes a new passion for him. For Simón and Inés this is difficult to understand and with the child’s gradual alienation they also find it more and more difficult to agree with each other.
J.M. Coetzee’s novel was nominated on the 2016 longlist for the Man Booker Prize. Normally, this is an indicator for me to read and book and I was never disappointed. However, this time the novel really had me despaired. First of all, I could hardly orientate in the novel. Where are we? And when? At least approximately. As I figured out in the meantime, there is another novel by Coetzee called “Childhood of Jesus” which might give some explanation to that. Second, most of the book is about the academy’s philosophy – and this was completely lost to me. Even more than to the protagonist Simón who also does not understand the least of what the teachers try to explain. Thirdly, which is closely linked to my first point, the family relationships were all but clear to me, this might be due to the fact that there is a first book in the series that I was not aware of.
Leaving aside the unease while reading, what does this text qualify for the Man Booker Prize nomination? It raises some questions which are definitely worth asking: who am I? What defines me? Which role do the family and the surrounding play in constructing me? Additionally, we have complex inner and out of family relationships which develop, intensify and loosen in the course of the story. The way especially Simón and Davíd not only interact but also react and define themselves through the other are quite interesting to observe.
All in all, I guess a lot of the story was lost to me. Unfortunately, there was too much I was wondering about to really enjoy it.
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A man is in Washington, waiting for his trial before the Supreme Court. He has never done anything wrong so why is there a case of the United States of America vs. himself? The narrator has to go back to his childhood days when he, the son of a black psychologist, was his father’s prime study object. His isolated upbringing always against the background of racial hated has left its marks and when is father is shot and he is faced with the police’s lack of interest, he understands that he has to do something for Dickens, his hometown which has vanished from the maps, and for his father’s memoir. A fight for equality and to find out who is really is and who he wants to be starts.
Paul Beatty’s novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and it is obvious why it has been nominated. At the end of two terms of a black president, the country has to raise the question if anything has changed in the last eight years. Considering the last months’ riots and street fights in many cities between the police and the black community, the answer might be “no” – or even: things are worse today. Thus, Beatty has chosen his topic well, it could not fit more to the current debate. But apart from its societal relevance, what does the novel have to offer?
First of all, the irony is just captivating. The best example for me is the search for a sister city when Juárez, Chernobyl and Kinshasa refuse to be linked to Dickens due to diverse reasons. You have to laugh until the laughter gets stuck to your throat because you understand what has been said about this black town in this scene. Its situation close to the LA metropolis is worse than the most violent city in Norther America, worse than the most polluted and dead place in Europe and worse than the poorest town in Africa. Is there anything to top this? Yes, of course there is – and that’s what makes this novel so outstanding. The narrator invents an upside-down version of segregation and has the white pupils expulsed from the local schools. This reminds you of something in history? Yes, but now things are different. Or not so different at all. The absurdity sharpens the observer’s view on the current state this small town is in.
At times, Beatty has his narrator reflect on what he is doing and what is happening and he comes to very sharp conclusions on why things are the way they are and why people just cannot act differently. This sounds quite serious, that’s what it is at the end of the day, but Beatty found a unique style ignoring all taboos to bring across his message.
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6:42 am. The day does not start as planned for Jon Sigurdsson. He is a good man, tries to save a small bird thus losing time to prepare for his day as civil servant in Westminster. But what job is this anyway? He hates what he is doing, he hates his colleagues and above all, he hates his life. So much has gone wrong. His wife left him, his daughter despises him and he does not like himself much either. Meg Williams’ day is not really more promising albeit it is her birthday: one year sober. But she still has to fight every day, fight for a life she hates, fight for herself – but is there anything lovable about this self? As the day moves on relentlessly, we get to know them better and finally find out what links them – apart from their depression-like uncertainty and doubt.
It is no question at all: this novel duly was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. The way A.L. Kennedy interweaves the lives of Jon and Meg is just brilliant. The story proceeds slowly which is the pace her characters need to get to each other. It recedes a step – by looking back in their lives – and then moves on again. Just like Jon and Meg move in their relationship which is not yet existing. A.L. Kennedy makes use of the classic Aristotelian unities: unity of action: Jon and Meg and their complicated way of getting together; unity of time: exactly 24 hours; unity of place: London. But luckily, we do not have a tragedy here, albeit there are tragic moments when you as a reader are tempted to shout at the characters to make them get rid of their depressing, negative thoughts, where everything is on the verge of going totally wrong. And we do not have tragicheroes – just heroes, because the can overcome their fears and do what they want to do, the find the courage to be who they want to be and to accept who and what they are.
It is a love story in a certain way, looking at it from the end. But much more it is a story which goes very deep to the darkest and most hidden places of our soul. We have characters who open up and let us look inside them where we find the thoughts and fears that might haunt each of us, too. And it is exactly this, the very close look at the human being, that makes this novel stand out. What I liked especially were the very short episodes inserted in the overall story where we get the chance to be present at a happy, noteworthy moment. Something we should observe much more closely in reality, too – this is something we really can learn from this novel.
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Nine men, nine lives, all at a crucial point which decides on how their life will go on – or not.
Teenagers Simon and Ferdinand, inter-railing through Europe, meeting different men and women, seeing the world and yet not finding themselves. Bérnard, failed at university now employed by his uncle and sacked after only a couple of days, sets out for a holiday on Cyprus where he finds sex, but not love as expected. Gabor and Balazs, about 30 years old, accompany Emma to London where she earns some money as a prostitute. Kristian, a Danish journalist with the story of his life – before turning 40 he reached more than he could ever dream of. James has to face the opposite: his business in the Alps does not run as expected. Murray also has to face a loss: his mother, but there is more to lose in Croatia. Alexandr, once he profited from the turmoil in Russia and became a big fish, now only suicide can save him. Tony, quite advanced in age, has to cope with the knowledge that his life will come to an end, rather sooner than later.
The different stories in David Szalay’s book are in a way independent from each other. They play in different countries, the characters come from completely different backgrounds and social classes at completely different points of their lives. The only linking element is the fact that they are all male and in some way they are aging. We start with the youngest and end with a man who has lived his life – interestingly, the youngsters reappear in this chapter. In this way, there is an inherent logic in the arrangement of the stories.
Some of them I liked more, especially the first with Simon and Ferdinand and the one about the journalist, others were more difficult to relate to. What I appreciated about all of them was the fact that Szalay gives deep insight the characters’ thoughts and motivations, to me they all seemed quite authentic and imaginable. Taken together he portrays not all that man is, but quite a lot of it.
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