Sunday, September 13, 2015

Man Booker Longlist Reviews #6 and #7: The Moor's Account and The Year of the Runaways

As the Man Booker shortlist day grows close (it's being announced on Tuesday night, Melbourne time), I thought it would be a good idea to get at least basic reviews up on the two remaining books I have read from the longlist - Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, and Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways. I'm doing them together not because they are in any way alike - they really aren't - but because they have this is common: I didn't read either one with any great enjoyment, and I confess to skipping chunks in order to get to the end. I give you this information so you can take my reviews with the appropriate king-sized grains of salt!

The Moor's Account, Laila Lalami's fictionalisation of a real Spanish conquistidor's failed 1527 attempt to claim what would later be known as Florida for the Spanish crown, is best described as ... worthy.

Retelling the story from the viewpoint of de Narvaez's Moorish slave, Mustafa al-Zamori (known to the Spaniards as Estebianco), Lalami is meticulous in her adherence to the historical narrative - it would be impossible not to respect the sheer volume of historical research that has gone into this book, and I can't fault it on the grounds of accuracy of landscapes, events, and political climate.

She's also, it seems to me, working hard to capture some of the flavour of the explorer's narratives that form the backbone of modern interpretations of the conquest period; al-Zamori's careful, emotionally fraught sequentialisation of the journey reads very much like Columbus's voyage logs. (My Masters thesis, which focused on Puritan narratives of Indian captivity, opened with a scene-setting chapter looking at how non-English invaders had represented native people in the Americas, so I know at least a little of what I speak.)

However - and this is where it all fell down, frankly - Lalami applies a thick patina of contemporary moralising and values to a story that had the potential to be much more interesting without them. Her Spaniards are caricatures, mustache-twirling evil villains, and her Africans and Americans are good, kindly, pure, etc. She throws in a few flaws for al-Zamori himself - hard not to, in a narrator - but even there, she leaves her reader in no doubt that the story of American conquest is one that should be read without nuance, and without mercy for the Europeans and their part. Any attempt to understand the world view of the Spaniards is transitory and half-hearted, and quickly abandoned.

I guess, at that end, this is why I didn't grip to this book - the profound ahistoricity of its approach to questions of ethics and morality irritated me, and made the considerable virtues of the accuracy in setting and events feel wasted. Don't mistake me - judging the past with a contemporary lens is a temptation almost too strong to resist, for historians as well as novellists. But it doesn't make for good history, or for a well-rounded novel.

The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota's second novel, is a contemporary novel, so the prohibition against applying present-day value judgements does not apply. Yet, in different ways, it is also a very worthy novel - depressing, grim, and often more concerned with making its undoubtedly powerful political points than with crafting the story.

This is the story of three young men and one young woman - the men are Indian, in the UK on various forms of borderline visas or illegally, working and living together in conditions very akin to indentured servitude, while the woman, Narindar, is a British Sikh struggling with questions of personal versus communal morality. Sahota uses the five as vehicles to explore, sometimes adroitly and sometimes with a heavy hand, various ideas about caste, modernity, migration, asylum, obligation and ethics - all very interesting themes, yet, somehow, not as interestingly explored as they might have been.

For me, it is the middle section that really let the novel down; saggy rambling middle bridges are not my favourite, and boy howdy does this novel have one. Sahota gives us the backstory of the characters, at considerable length in at least two cases, and seems to me to get carried away with expounding these mini-stories at the expense of building a larger coherent narrative. I'm always a trifle dubious about head-hopping, and this is a good example of why.

Some of the stories are, individually, compelling and heart-breaking - notably Tochi's, the Untouchable man whose experience in India was so brutal - but where I felt that the novel lost traction is that it didn't make the leap to knitting the tales together in a coherent way. Rather, it presents these four individuals as a self-evident prima facie case for the larger political points Sahota is trying to make, and I don't feel it carried.

All of that said, Sahota is a terrific writer stylistically - his prose is silky and compelling, and his ideas, fully realised or not, are powerful. I think this one will go far, because it is that rare thing - a genuinely political novel speaking to present political-ethical concerns. It isn't entirely successful, but it's a valiant attempt.


So that's me done for the Man Booker longlist - I've read 7 of the 13 in total, and started 2 others (A Brief History of Seven Killings and Satin Island). The four I haven't touched are Sleeping on Jupiter, A Little Life, Did You Ever Have a Family, and The Illuminations. I am reliably informed that A Little Life is going to shortlist (every reviewer who's read it has been blown away), so I'll most likely be picking that one up in the shortlist race.

Other than that, what else will shortlist? Well, and bearing in mind the ones I haven't read might be spectacular, I'd be picking these five to round out the Big Six:
The Fishermen
The Green Road
Satin Island
The Year of the Runaways

These aren't my favourites - indeed, I enjoyed both The Chimes and A Spool of Blue Thread much more than most of them - but they are my picks for Boookerish titles, based on what I have read or sampled. (Obviously with the caveat that any one or more than one of the four unread titles could gazump any of them).

I'll be doing a shortlist overview at Global Comment late this week, and after that, pressing on with the remaining shortlist books I haven't read. (I'm hoping it is four or preferably less - I'll be very annoyed if the shortlist is comprised entirely of the barely-started or unread titles!)

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