Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Booker Longlist: The Moor's Account

Story and storytelling is at the heart of Laila Lalami's beautiful third novel The Moor's Account. The ability to tell a good story, she urges, is a life-saving skill.
The novel reimagines the first encounters between the Spanish Conquistadores and the Americas, and tells the story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave. It is a work of remarkable seductive persuasion. Lalami presents us with  one of the most compellingly wonderful characters of this year's Booker longlist, the vibrant, flawed, brave and resourceful: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, sold into slavery and renamed as Estebanico. His account is satisfying on so many levels: it is lively  and direct, in the way of folk wisdom. It takes its rhythms from The Arabian Nights; it is laced with insight and compassion. His account is deeply concerned with morality. A slave to greed before he is made a slave, Mustafa's personal story includes him selling slaves for profit before in an act of humility and self sacrifice he sells himself so that his family might have the means of survival.
In Spain he is stripped of his identity and his dignity: 'the first of many erasures' but his ability with language makes him indispensible to Castilian explorers who depend on his skills to negotiate with the various tribes they encounter. Greed and betrayal underpin much of the narrative action, but Lalami suggests that storytelling is itself a moral act,  indeed, it surpasses that: it is act of faith. And as an act of faith it leads us to the truth, and to a life lived under the eye of God. The novel closes with the following:
"Maybe there is no true story, only imagined stories, vague reflections of what we saw and what we heard, what we felt and what we thought. Maybe if our experiences, in all their glorious, magnificent colours, were somehow added up, they would lead us to the blinding light of the truth. To God belong the east and the west: whichever way you turn, there is the face of God. God is great." Without the saving grace of story we are deeply imperilled and spiritually lost.
This is a novel which rings with all the pleasures of the profoundly familiar and the brilliantly imagined. To read it is to rediscover who we are, what shames us, and what redeems us.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Booker Longlist: Did You Ever Have a Family?

Bill Clegg's novel Did You Ever Have a Family is a work of immense lyrical grace. Absolutely sure-footed, Clegg guides us through the parched landscapes of loss following the gas explosion that wipes out June Reid's family, the evening before her only daughter's wedding. The novel is articulated with great tenderness, unpacking the various ambivalences which surround human intimacy and social hierarchy. Belonging, desire, vulnerability, betrayal, isolation: each chapter brings a different voice to the chorus, sheds a new light on the tragedy. Relationships, Clegg suggests, are incendiary even without faulty appliances. It only takes a little fault, something you learn to live with, to trigger calamity. Even the people on the remotest reaches of this catastrophe reveal the ways in which the disasters they must live with are as much a result of their characters as of fate.
Beautifully paced, each chapter permits another piece of the story to drop into place, which makes for a pleasingly satisfying read. The base note is gentleness. This, the novel proposes, is the way to heal. This is hard-won intelligence. Each character's small, flawed life needs care. Those that give care elevate the novel to something elegiac. Those that withhold it, ground us in the unnecessary small meannesses of everyday life.
The premise of this novel presents Clegg with a technical problem. Because the main event wipes out the family of the title right at the beginning of the book, the action of the novel is almost all retrospective. June's odyssey across America to try and put some physical distance between her life and what remains of it, is numbed by grief. In effect she becomes a ghost in her own life. That Clegg is able to sustain our interest and our compassion for the characters through the rest of the novel, is testament to his skill in observing the detail of ordinary lives. The gap between who June is in this novel, and who she hoped she would be is at the heart of why we care for her. That gap is what motivates all the characters in one way or another. It is what underpins their relationships and enables them to be more fully real than even they feel themselves to be. And it is this, more than anything, that lifts Bill Clegg's novel beyond the ordinary, and makes it something really rather wonderful.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Booker Longlist: The Illuminations

Every so often you come across what reads like an almost perfect novel. From the opening sentence of Andrew O'Hagan's fifth novel, The Illuminations, you know you are going to be taken somewhere thrilling. His central character, Anne Quirk, photographer of the mundane and overlooked moment, is capable of giving even the most despised kitchen utensil a compelling gleam, and so too does O'Hagan in this novel which is crafted so elegantly you forget there is a craft to it, and each page reveals something both recognisably familiar and brand new.
Illumination is at the heart of the novel which explores light in all its moods: dark-rooms and cross-fire, metaphor and truth, levity and gravity. What is revealed shifts according to the light we see it in. But O'Hagan guides us through the dazzle and glare with such tenderness, such candour about relationships, honour, betrayal and love that we emerge from the reading as transfigured as if we were ourselves in love.
The novel is structured around two counterposed narratives of identity: the story of Anne Quirk and that of her grandson, Luke (named for the light) who is serving in Afghanistan. Both stories are fully believable: the disintegrating, fragmented personal narrative of the old lady, dislocated by dementia and most thoroughly realised through what she has created and what is remembered by others; and the disintegrating fragmented political narrative of her grandson, whose interrogations of loyalty and glory most closely plot and unhook the national narratives of identity.
I loved this novel. I loved it for its simple beauty,  and for the fact that it focuses the attention on the smallest particular, and makes that detail reveal something large about us. I hope it makes the shortlist. Indeed I hope it wins the prize, for it would be a worthy winner. And I recommend it to you with all my heart, as a novel that you should read, because it is true and powerful and rich in both sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele