Back to my reviews of the Booker longlist, and now to two very modern books, very much set in today’s world, with familiar locations and cultural references. But also – both very different. One, a huge sprawling tome of a book focussed on just two main characters. The other a slim volume (by Booker standards), essentially a series of short stories spanning nine different characters all with a common theme.
I liked the second book best, and so I’m going to review it first.
All that man is by David Salazy:
As I said above, this book is almost a series of short stories, each one focussed on a man in a different stage of his life, starting with the teenagers euro-tripping and ending with an old, retired man in his holiday home. So one key theme is obviously masculinity, following the men through as they get older. The other is Europe – and so it felt very timely to me as I read it this summer, shortly after the vote to leave the EU. Every character is a European, in a different country than the one they are from. There is this theme of the inter-connectedness of Europe, but I don’t think it was in any way a political point, its too subtle for that (especially given it was published pre-Brexit).
It took me a while to really get the book – I became really drawn in, hooked, when the men were in the middle of their life, deeply involved in their careers and doing well at them. That is when their characters became much more real to me, their problems much more tangible, their inner monologues more interesting.
Two characters in particular really got to me, parts of their narrative so true and almost heartbreaking. The man with young children, trying to come to terms with the fact he is not young and fancy-free anymore:
Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it.
The sun on his eyelids.
Cowbells fading in and out on the wind.
Warmth of the sun.
Wind on his skin.
To withdraw, somehow, to just this.
It’s not a joke.
Life is not a joke.
Then a retired man, in his holiday home in Italy, recovering from a heart operation and retired from a busy and important job in government:
He still misses them, after nearly ten years, those engrossing necessities, waiting for him at the end of the Tube journey to Whitehall, still feels that without them he is not properly living.
So many of these individual stories I got really into, and then I couldn’t put the book down as even when I came to the end of one story, I wanted to see what was coming next, who the next character would be.
However – given the name of the novel, All that Man is, if you took that too seriously I think you would find it pretty depressing. All that man is – lonely, befuddled, concerned above all with work, family only as a sideline, women barely mentioned at all. I don’t think the stories, even all put together, go even a tiny way to encapsulating “all that man is”.
Serious sweet by A.L. Kennedy
I really wanted to like this book. Two lonely, messed up people, in London, my city, over a period of 24 hours. A introspective study of those two people, of the self in modern city life.
Jon is in his late 50s, working for the civil service and hating it, reeling from his divorce. Meg is an alcoholic, sober for almost a year, struggling. The novel follows them over one 24 hour period and the main thrust of the narrative arc circles around whether they will get to meet. The reader really gets right to the heart of the characters through the stream of consciousness narrative, we feel for them, sympathise with them. I was intrigued by Meg’s back story, I wanted to know more about her, I wanted her to be okay. I cared less for Jon, the narrative flickered back and forward in time and set up a story of corruption, treachery, that I just really couldn’t care less about.
However, I particularly liked the interludes that came at the end of chapters, short pages of everyday observations of people going about their daily life in London, moments of sweet – of love, connection. Showing that people all around us are kind, moments of hope in an otherwise pretty bleak novel. I also loved London as a character, Kennedy depicts the city so well, it is so recognisable.
But generally I just found the book too long for what it was. It meanders but never gets anywhere – for some that’s the whole point but for me it was double the length it needed to be. Not worth the time it took to read it, or the effort to lug such a heavy tome around. I wouldn’t recommend it – one of the few books I read that I wouldn’t really recommend!