Booker Special – Part 1

Since we’re two days away from the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Mag has two pages of books, which have the following:

  • A review of Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House by Omair Ahmed
  • Mitali Saran’s review of The Liberals by Hindol Sengupta
  • Reviews of the six novels in this year’s Booker shortlist. Each novel carries a little badge, which I’d originally thought I’d make earnest and thoughtful (like “Most lyrical use of language”), but they ended up, erm, more cheerful. Like, “Most likely to drive you insane.”

Here are the reviews of The Garden of Evening Mists (which is the book that I’m hoping will win even though Will Self’s Umbrella is more of a bookie favourite and has more technical pyrotechnics) and The Lighthouse. The last of the “normal” novels is Bring Up The Bodies, which I’d reviewed earlier.

Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

Most likely to make you go green

The six titles shortlisted by the judges’ panel of the Man Booker Prize this year can be neatly divided into two groups: the conventional and the weird. (To read about the books that fall into the second category, look to your right.) Conventional is often used as a synonym for boring, but Bring Up The BodiesThe Lighthouse, and The Garden Of Evening Mists are heartwarming examples of how well the good old fashioned novel works, using familiar devices like chapters, narrators and written with the intent of telling a story straightforwardly.

Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, is astonishingly beautiful in parts. You wouldn’t think the technicalities of building a Japanese garden would make for riveting reading, but Eng manages this feat. Aritomo, a Yoda-esque gardener with a mysterious past, has built a garden named Yugiri in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. It is the only one of its kind in the country. A young woman named Yun Ling requests him to make a garden in the memory of her sister who died in a prison camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Aritomo refuses but offers her an apprenticeship that will teach her all she needs to build a garden. The relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo is curiously engaging. Both are considered foreign by the locals — Yun Ling is of Chinese descent and Aritomo is Japanese. She’s fascinated by Aritomo, but embittered by her experiences as a prisoner, she also hates how traditionally Japanese he is.

If The Garden Of Evening Mists had no plot, Eng’s descriptions would still have you turning the pages. His language is filigreed with poetic phrases that never seem overwrought. He’s at his best describing Yugiri and is strangely less effective when his subjects are more dramatic spaces, like the camp where Yun Ling was held.

Nestled in The Garden Of Evening Mists are mysteries. Who was Aritomo? How is it that Yun Ling was the only survivor of her prison camp? Why did Aritomo choose Yun Ling as his apprentice? Ultimately, though, these aren’t the truly memorable parts of The Garden of Evening Mists. It’s compelling because of the wonder that is Aritomo’s Yugiri.

Yugiri — ironically, this was also the name given to a destroyer ship in the Imperial Japanese navy — eventually becomes a part of the local landscape. The foreign garden, traditionally considered a site of contemplation, becomes a repository of memories and also reflects how societies survive brutality to become more cosmopolitan. Painful histories are absorbed into art, perhaps because inherited memory can be disruptive if articulated plainly. Instead, the past is contained in code — in gardens, paintings, art, tattoos, novels — or forgotten. Early on in The Garden Of Evening Mists, Yun Ling comes across a statue that she is told is of the goddess of forgetting. She says that she doesn’t recall there being such a goddess. To which her companion replies, “Ah, doesn’t the fact of your not recalling prove her existence?”

Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse

Most likely to impress Sigmund Freud
Futh is an unfortunate name. It carries the aura, not of heroism, but of being mercilessly ragged through school. Boyhood trauma does indeed haunt Futh, the protagonist of Alison Moore’s debut novel, The Lighthouse. However, his problem is more Freudian. Futh is obsessed by his mother, who left him and his father when Futh was a boy. Not only does he remember the last few days with his mother with almost hallucinatory clarity, Futh as an adult marries a young woman who he’s drawn to initially because she has the same name as his mother (Angela). Not-so-subtly, he tries to turn his wife Angela into a replica of the other Angela who abandoned him as a child. No prizes for guessing this doesn’t work out so well and when The Lighthouse begins, Futh is on a ferry, alone. He is on his way to a walking holiday in Germany and at the end of it, he will return to England and enter a new, empty apartment to which Angela has sent all his belongings.

The holiday is supposed to be an opportunity for Futh to collect himself but as the holiday progresses and he walks not just into forests but also down memory lane, it becomes clear that Futh is unravelling.

Running alongside Futh’s track is the story of Ester, who manages a hotel in a little German town called Hellhaus with her husband, Bernard. Hellhaus, contrary to what it sounds like, does not have any devilish connotations. It translates to “bright house” or “light house”. Moore reminds the reader repeatedly that the incandescence of a lighthouse could be a kindly welcome or a warning, but Futh is too self-obsessed to notice the possibility of disaster. The reader, though, gets a sniff of it from the moment Ester enters the narrative. She and Bernard are a middle-aged, childless couple. Bernard is simultaneously dismissive and possessive of Ester. He notes her casual infidelities but doesn’t register that Ester does all this to provoke him. Ester and Bernard’s hotel is the first and last stop in Futh’s itinerary. While Futh loses his way and hobbles through Germany battling blisters, sunburn and other woes, Ester tries desperately to recapture her youth and Bernard.

In the strange Oedipus-inspired story, Futh is the tragic hero with his mother fixation. The father figures — Futh’s father and Bernard — are all hulking, alpha males who intimidate Futh. All the women in The Lighthouse are failed mothers and two are sexual predators. Futh’s wife suffers repeated miscarriages and refuses to mother him. Futh’s mother abandons her maternal responsibilities. Futh’s father’s lover, Gloria, seems to be interested in taking care of Futh, but there’s an underlying ripple of sexuality that is distinctly unmaternal. For Ester, motherhood negates sexuality. Uncaring of consequences, she is desperate to remain an object of desire because this is her only source of power.

As technically accomplished as The Lighthouse may be — and it is — the fact that not a single character in the novel is remotely likeable makes the novel oppressively gloomy. It also means that you don’t really care what happens to any of them, which makes The Lighthouse smartly-paced and intelligently-plotted, but not a particularly compelling read.

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