So the winner of the Booker Prize was announced earlier this week… The Sellout which was the first one I read this year! I reviewed it here. Although it wasn’t my favourite book, I think it definately deserved to win and I wasn’t necessarily surprised. Go and read it! For the second year running, I’ve read all the books longlisted for the Booker Prize, and yet again discovered some wonderful new-to-me authors. So on with the reviews…
Two books this week which, as the title of the post suggests, are all about the men. They are also both fantastic historical novels, firmly set in a completely different time and place, alien to the vast majority of readers – but yet made so real by the quality of the writing.
First – my favourite of the two (although it didn’t even make the shortlist!).
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Behold, the man
The book begins as we follow “the man” drinking in a dingy pub – we only learn his name by the end of the first brutal chapter:
This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.
The North Water follows a British whaling ship, the Volunteer as it travels up into the frozen artic in the 1800s in search of a fortune in whale blubber and meat. Henry Drax is one of the crewmen – we also meet captain Brownlea, first man Cavendish, and the ship’s doctor, Patrick Sumner. Sumner is really the main character, a surgeon from the siege of Delhi who became caught up in an act of greed with tragic consequences. Sumner is consumed by guilt, keeping secret an addiction to opium as he attempts to maintain a facade of the educated, literary surgeon. It is really the story of Drax and Sumner, it could be described as a story of good against evil – but, as with all clever authors, it is never anywhere near as simple as that.
After a poor whaling season, the ship ventures really far north as winter gets closer, ostensibly in search of whales but the captain has another plan… as the air gets colder, the dangers all around them become more real, tensions emerge.
They sail north from Lerwick through long days of fog and sleet and bitter wind, days without ease or letup, when the sea and sky meld together into a damp weft of roiling and impermeable grayness.
It really is an adventure story, a survival story, and also a story about human nature – how do different people act in such life-and-death situations? The language and the scenery is incredibly visceral and brutal – but at the same time there are some wonderfully lyrical descriptions, tying together the beauty and the savagery of the frozen artic landscape. The book was brilliant anyway, but it really comes into its own when everything goes very badly wrong for the Volunteer and the men are forced to dig deep into everything they have, both good and bad, in order to survive.
His Bloody Project by Graham McCrae
The previous novel could have been described as a crime novel – albeit the crime was only a very small part of the plot. This second book too, could be described as a crime novel. Here, the crime is very much at the centre of the novel, but it is not your typical crime novel, there is no whodunnit as we know who did it right from the start – we know he was imprisoned and we are told that what we are reading is his memoirs of committing the crime. We know who Roddy MacCrae has killed, we know when, but we don’t know why – and that is what the book sets out to tell us.
It is set in a crofting community in Scotland, Culdie, in the 1860s, where the pressures of feudalism are coming to the fore, exploring issues of class and power in this world. The bulk of the book is in Roddy’s words, a really eloquent, beautifully written description of crofting life for a young boy, an intelligent young man with hopes of going on to further education, but a hard life of crofting laid out for him.
McCrae has said that, in writing This Bloody Project, he was interested in this idea of an individual being capable of terrible, horrifying violence, but yet also able to express himself beautifully and eloquently. And that really comes across – it makes the murders themselves all the more jarring and shocking given what has come before.
The book is a collection of different “documents”: Roddy’s memoir, interview notes after the murder, medical and psychological reports and a journalist’s report of the trial itself. These give the reader conflicting viewpoints, turn it into a detective story within a story as the reader tries to work out the truth of the matter. One of the key themes is insanity – is Roddy insane? Did he just have a moment of insanity? Has poverty and unjust treatment pushed him over the edge? Or is it the case that the extreme poor always have the potential for this inside them? Clearly today we would say no but that was not the thinking back in the 19th century!
It was a really good book, I enjoyed it and I would recommend it – but I have to say I was slightly surprised that it made the Booker shortlist as I didn’t think it was anything particularly special…