Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Sampling September: Booker Prize nominees

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy Satin Island (12 March 2015) by Tom McCarthy

The premise: Our narrator, known only as U., is a 'corporate anthropologist' working for a consultancy. He 'spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis... As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.'
First line: Turin is where the famous shroud is from, the one showing Christ's body supine after crucifixion: hands folded over genitals, eyes closed, head crowned with thorns.
What I read: Chapters 1 & 2.
Would I read the rest of it? I'm not sure, but I'm leaning more towards no than yes. U.'s voice in the first couple of chapters is at once interesting and banal; many of the themes mentioned in the blurb, including his fascination with images of disasters such as oil spills, and perceived links between events discussed in news bulletins and the ordinary details of observed everyday life, are already coming into play. The problem is mainly that I get the impression it will just continue to be like this, a shapeless and detached cycle of observations, and I don't, at this stage, find the language remarkable enough to make that compelling in and of itself. This is the sort of book that I wish I could be a lot more interested in. But I'm just not.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill The Chimes (12 February 2015) by Anna Smaill

The premise: This unique dystopian tale is set 'in a world where people cannot form new memories, and the written word has been forbidden and destroyed. In the absence of both memory and writing is music.' The plot centres on Simon, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about his parents' fate.
First line: I've been standing here forever. My arms and legs and head and even my bones are heavy with sleep.
What I read: Part 1 (chapters 1-3).
Would I read the rest of it? If you've read any reviews of The Chimes, you're probably already aware that one of its most-talked-about features is Smaill's creative use of language. Right from the start it's clear this book has its own vocabulary, filled with familiar-but-altered words: prentissed, objectmemories, woolfat. Musical terms feature in abundance - for example, Simon uses 'presto' to mean 'quickly' and 'lento' to mean 'slowly', and some of the words I thought were invented, such as solfege and tacet, turned out to have musical meanings when I looked them up. All of this requires maybe a little more concentration than average, but it's not particularly difficult to figure out what the words are supposed to mean when you're seeing them in context, and the narration develops its own pleasant rhythm very quickly. Already I can envision this world and feel slightly enchanted by it; the main character is engaging and the mysteries brought up by this society's very existence have me hooked (it's set in London, so is this a future version of our world or an alternate reality?) My concerns that the book might be similar to a not-great dystopia I read a while back (The Ship) have melted away. This one's a definitely-maybe.

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan The Illuminations (27 January 2015) by Andrew O'Hagan

The premise: The life story of Anne, now an elderly woman suffering from dementia, unfolds when she and her grandson, a soldier, journey to an old guest house in Blackpool - a place that proves to be important in her personal history.
First line: Snow was falling past the window and in her sleep she pictured a small girl and her father in a railway carriage.
What I read: Part one - split into smaller chapters; up to 11% in the ebook.
Would I read the rest of it? The first part of The Illuminations concentrates on the viewpoint of Anne's neighbour Maureen, but Anne gets the best lines ('a scarf's like a friend, isn't it?') So far, it kind of feels like a better, more nuanced Elizabeth is Missing, although I'm aware it may change direction later. I'm intrigued by Anne and would happily read more about her, but this is a gentle sort of story, and I'm not compelled to read on immediately. So the answer is probably yes, but it's one that will just be added to my to-read-eventually list, not an instant priority.

Throughout September I'll be working through some of my 2015 to-read list, sampling the books and cataloguing my thoughts on each of them. Find all the posts in this series here!

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