Atonement – Ian McEwan

atonement

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Chosen by Suzy

A girl’s half-innocent mistake ruins the lives of those around her, and she spends the rest of her life attempting to atone. 

Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old from an upper class family spies an intimate moment between her sister and the neighbouring boy, Robbie, in the home’s library. She is shaken, presuming it a physical assault. Later that evening her twin cousins run away, search parties are organised and Briony, searching alone, comes upon her 9-year-old cousin Lola being assaulted in the darkness by someone she is convinced must be the monstrous Robbie. Her testimony changes the course of all their lives.

“In part II of the book, Robbie, now with the British Expeditionary Force in France, is wounded and making his way to Dunkirk for evacuation.

“Briony is a nurse, fixing up fallen soldiers day after day, itself some kind of atonement. She now realises her mistake and is determined to make amends by recanting her testimony which she puts on paper in novelistic form before approaching her long unseen sister.

“However, it soon becomes apparent that not is at all how it seems and that storytelling, as witnessed in the opening pages with 13-year-old Briony’s failed attempt at playwrighting, is an important part of the plot. The sustained  illusion is anchored in an authentically detailed historical setting with the psychological nature of the book slowly revealed.”

How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.

“The thing I love about Ian McEwan is his ability to refashion ordinary things into sensory experiences. Reading his work makes me feel as though I’ve been there, met the folk and lived the complexities of their lives. Atonement is no different. And in fact probably better. Robbie and Cecilia are my friends, I can see the vast Tallis mansion behind my eyes and will remember the scene on Dunkirk for a long time to come. I adore this book.” – Rachel

“This book still haunts me!  The retreat to Dunkirk was so evocatively written that I felt I could have sat down with a soldier who was there and genuinely related to him and discussed it as a shared experience (yes I *do* realise how ridiculous that sounds). One of my all-time favourites and one of the few novels where I think the movie has done it justice.” – Suzy

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Published 2001
Jonathan Cape
371 pages

The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro

UnconsoledREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Rachel

Ryder, a famous pianist, arrives in a European city to perform a concert. However, he appears to have lost most of his memory and finds his new environment surreal and dreamlike.

“Ryder is an accomplished artist, renowned concert pianist and respected public figure. But he may have wasted his life. In this book the hero/anti-hero wades through the pages and locations within in a dream like fashion. People appear and disappear, locations morph into one another, storylines up and change on you. Every page is a catalogue of lost opportunities and time-wasting.

“Although there is little sense of coherent logic, this is a heavy plotted book with well-structured characters and suitable outcomes. This balance ensures symmetry, a consistent flow to the story telling and always an incentive to read on.”

Your wound, your silly little wound! That’s your real love, Leo, that wound, the one true love of your life! I know how it will be, even if we tried, even if we managed to build something all over again. The music too, that would be no different. Even if they’d accepted you tonight, even if you became celebrated in this town, you’d destroy it all, you’d destroy everything, pull it all down around you just as you did before. And all because of that wound. Me, the music, we’re neither of us anything more to you than mistresses
you seek consolation from.

“While some may say this book was baffling, I found the confusion consistent. It made Ryder a believable character and heightened my sense of intrigue. Once I accepted things were not simple, nor offered in a succinct manner, I enjoyed the roller coaster ride. I was happy with the conclusion too, it suited the chaos of the narrative. To have everything spelled out and explained on the final pages would have been a disappointment.” – Rachel

“I didn’t really enjoy this book – I know a lot of it probably went over my head. Also, I couldn’t relate to the main character so I think it lost me there and then.” – Nadine

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Published 1995
Faber & Faber
535 pages

2007 Bookerthon

Booker 2007In 2007 we began our Bookerthon journey. We’d kept up to date with Man Bookers of the past and we’d shared thoughts and comments. In 2007 there were a couple of attractions to the shortlist. First of all Lloyd Jones, a New Zealander, featured upon it. Secondly, another of the contenders was one of our favourite authors, Ian McEwan. It seemed logical to keep reading. Someone had the idea to read them all before the winner was announced. The other announced “it will be like a Booker-thon”.

And just like that, history was made!

In picking our winner, we considered the following categories: readability, significance and style. Who knew if that was how the judges based their critiques also, but from our novice point of view, it seemed logical enough.

The thing that hit us in our first Bookerthon was the way in which extraordinary characters took control of the narratives and forced themselves into our lives. It was as if these authors knew a likeable protagonist or lead character of the past was not enough anymore. To be recognised, their book needed an extravagant leading figure, who would entertain, horrify and mesmorise us.

First, in Darkmans there is a jester who haunts the pages and forces the characters to speak unexpectedly and act with comedic or shocking outbursts. In Animal’s People a boy deformed from a chemical disaster walks on all fours and abuses passers by with language like you’ve never heard. On Chesil Beach introduces a privileged, well-to-do young couple on their honeymoon who speak of nothing but their inability to make love. At the other end of the scale is Mister Pip, in which an English teacher wears a red clown’s nose and tows his wife about in a trolley in Bouganville reading Great Expectations to native children during a conflict. Depressed Irishman Liam Hegatry takes his life in The Gathering, but wears a high-vis vest so his body can easily be located in the turbulent waters of the local river. And a nameless American in The Reluctant Fundamentalist questions a Pakistani living in New York who admits he smiled when the Trade Towers came down.

This cast was a brain explosion of character development and relationships, with idiosyncrasies, troubles and societal beliefs not so prevalent in one’s every day reading. The Man Booker Prize delivered in ways we had not predicted, in the expansion of our understanding of people, of types of people, of all people, far and wide. The shortlist might be called the best six books of the year but to us they were the best representation of the state of the world and the state of literature at that moment.

After this appreciation, we knuckled down to our evening of judging. Wine, a cheeseboard, six revelatory books later we concluded: five of the six to have qualities worthy of winning: Mister Pip, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Animal’s People are all profound and human, set amongst real-life atrocities, and Darkmans is a detailed and unique story. On Chesil Beach is from the master himself, and while we do both respect his genius, we have differing views of where this one sits in the shortlist favourites order.

The book we did not think was a contender was The Gathering. Yes it spoke to families, to mental health, to discovery. And we agreed the misery was complete and all-encompassing and therefore stylistically impressive. However, something so dreary failed our readability criteria and couldn’t make enough gains in the other two categories.

In the end we both picked our favourites for the same reasons: slap-in-the-face reality, highly developed characters, unputdownable readability and the promotion of a cause through a fictionalised truth. So for Rachel it was Animal’s People and for Suzy Mister Pip.

Best book 1-6: Rachel:
Animal’s People
Mister Pip
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
On Chesil Beach
Darkmans
The Gathering

Best book 1-6: Suzy:
Mister Pip
On Chesil Beach
Animal’s People
Darkmans
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Gathering

On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

on-chesil-beach1

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In this novella a newly married couple reflect on their pasts and as a result question their marriage while honeymooning on Chesil Beach.

“The opening line of On Chesil Beach sums up the rest of the content: ‘They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.’

“It is 1962, the cusp of the sexual revolution, and two very English characters are contemplating the role of sex in their newly declared marriage. There are many factors that contribute to their differing views, not contained to the time and place, but also societal class systems and other goings on in their familial histories.

“The real-life Chesil Beach in Dorset, on the south-west coast of England, is alive and relevant to the storyline. The beach is one of the few shingle beaches in the UK. Its view of the ocean and rocky composition represent both openness but also difficulty/slippery footing associated with reaching that openness.”

A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no-one else to know about.

“While I am an Ian McEwan fan of the highest order, On Chesil Beach left me wanting. There was his usual mastery of prose but somehow it seemed too easy. I’m being critical, obviously, because even a bad Ian McEwen book would be better than most texts on the bookshop shelves!, but I guess being the huge fan that I am means I am being extra tough on him. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a great read, I just didn’t feel overwhelmed with fervour and emotion as I have with his other masterpieces. Edit: Now years later, I look back on this book with fondness and admiration. Without a re-read. I’m not sure what changed but it’s funny how hindsight and time to reflect can change one’s opinions.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Jonathan Cape
166 pages

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones

Mister_Pip_(Lloyd_Jones_novel)

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In the world of Mister Pip, reading Dickens represents salvation for a community ravaged by conflict.

“Lloyd Jones’s novel is set in a village on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville during the 1990s civil war. Jones covered it as a journalist, and in his novel he never shies away from the realities of daily life shadowed by violence. Matilda, the 13-year-old narrator, details how the helicopters circle, the generators are empty and all the teachers have fled.

“One white man remains. Mr Watts believes in the power of literature to set minds free. He reads the children Great Expectations and in it they find something just as vital as medicine and kerosene: ‘a bigger piece of the world’. Like many readers before her, Matilda falls in love with the fictional Pip, but ‘Pip’ is mistakenly assumed by soldiers to be a rebel fighter and then the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves.

I had found a new friend. The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears, the bad people spoke like pirates.

“A clever, enthralling, devastating book.” – Suzy

“I enjoy books set in real life conflicts, to be educated/shocked and entertained all at once. Here Jones takes a little known conflict and into it inserts fabulous characters. The protagonist, Matilda, and the re-invented Pip are both fully developed characters who bring innocence and a harsh reality to the real-life conflict. I enjoyed not only the harsh differences but also the parallels between story telling and war. A touching and haunting book with snippets I had to read from behind my hands. An important book; one not to be forgotten.” – Rachel

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Published 2006
John Murray
256 pages

Darkmans – Nicola Barker

darkmans

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The reality of English families set over two days in a small town in England, with a hovering jester haunting every page.

“A jester haunts this book, possessing the characters at inconvenient moments, forcing broken language out of their mouths and “ducking and diving between the words … deceiving and then disappearing”.

“He haunts the lives of many characters, a collection of interesting folk living in Ashby, England. A erratic, embitted old man; a dealer of prescription drugs; a chiropodist with mysterious bruises; a husband with schizophrenia; and a gifted but eccentric boy building cathedrals of matchsticks. The jester is the weight of history bearing down upon them, he is the language that links past and present. He is prank puller and the instigator of many comedic moments in this book that celebrates life in all its glory, both uneasy and honest.”

“This book was a bit mad but I loved it.  It was a massive commitment during a Bookerthon due to the length but definitely worth it.” – Suzy

“This was an epic read and there was a lot going on, but it was quite different to most novels (right down to the font!) and that made it intriguing. As two families go about their daily business, which is identifiable to us all, there is a ghostly jester who haunts the book, forcing characters to say weird things and moving items about in true supernatural style. You certainly had to be invested in the 800-odd pages to get the most out of it. It was tough to give it the attention it deserved due to time restraints with our Bookerthon reading, so I’d recommend picking up this book when your reading time is ample.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Fourth Estate
848 pages

Animal’s People – Indra Sinha

Animal's People

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Animal is a man trying to live an ordinary life about being deformed in the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster.

“In 1984 Union Carbide released 40 tonnes of lethal gas from its pesticide factory into the city of Bhopal in India, killing thousands and contaminating drinking water. Indra Sinha writes of this atrocity in Animal’s People, replacing Bhopal’s with the fiction city of Khaufpur.

“He even creates and promotes in the book a website about “Khaufpur,” to which he allocates Bhopal’s history, where the residents are his characters and the journalist revealing events is a female version of himself. Such is his desire to educate people about this terrible tragedy.

“In the book Animal is a man who has been deformed from the chemical leak and as a result walks on all fours. Though cynical and bitter he retains many enjoyable and relatable characteristics including a romantic side. The history of the city and the people are detailed alongside the story of Animal who attempts to protect the woman he loves and also spy on American doctors whom many do not trust.”

At the end of time when God judges us humans, I just hope He remembers to judge Himself as well.

“This book was so evocative.  Years later, when I think of it I still feel overwhelmed with memories of the noise and colour.” – Suzy

“I had never heard of the Bhopal Disaster before reading this book. And it is so outrageous that even as I read I kept thinking surely this is not real? I appreciated how Sinha relayed the facts in a fictional style to give them more weight. I also enjoyed how he treated Animal as a normal person – with thoughts and desires, friends, enemies and love interests – despite his severe deformities and homelessness. It’s what made this book affecting and memorable. Not only does it educate people about the disaster but it reminds us that whatever our circumstances and outward presentation we are all the same inside.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Simon & Schutster
374 pages

The Gathering – Anne Enright

The Gathering

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Irish woman Veronica takes a closer look at her family’s troubled history while at the funeral of her brother.

“Liam Hegarty has drowned himself a river. He wears high vis to ensure his body is easy to spot. He is one of 12 siblings who all like to drink, though he was afflicted more than the rest.

The Gathering refers to his extended family, a large, Irish kin, coming together for Liam’s funeral and subsequent events. His sister Veronica narrates the tale, grieving for her brother but also attempting to unravel the causes of the family’s dysfunction. She remembers a summer long ago when the children stayed at their grandmother Ada’s house, and attempts to reconstruct Ada’s life to make sense of her own.

There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important… and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.

“For us both, the endless misery in The Gathering put a veil over the whole reading experience, making it impossible to see what distinguished this as a book worthy of Booker nomination. There is no sentimentality and no joy. If that’s what Enright was after, she has done well, but that didn’t translate into reader appeal for either of us.”

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Published 2007
Random House
272 pages

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant_Fundamentalist

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Over one night, a Pakistani man tells an American stranger about his love affair with a woman and his forced abandonment of America post 911.

“Changez is a Pakistani man living in New York at the time of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. The resulting chaos, especially for men of his ethnicity, causes Changez to abandon his wish to pursue the American Dream. With shifting beliefs and loyalties he rushes home home, experiencing ideological and political inner turmoil.

“Changez tells his thoughts and his story to an American he meets near a café in Lahore. An embedded narrative depicts a suspenseful and ill-fated relationship between Changez and the American as the motives of both men are slowly revealed.

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

“This is an honest portrayal of a Muslim man living in New York when the towers come down. It offers new insights into the tragedy and offers reactions and consequences that I had not previously considered. It is an eye-opening and thought-provoking story, written in a personable way, as if we, the reader, are the American he is speaking with. Great characters, great plot, great read.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Mariner Books
228 pages

The People’s Act Of Love – James Meek

The P Act of LoveREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

A renegade Czech army unit is stranded in a community of religious fanatics in a small, remote town in Siberia. 

“The People’s Act of Love is set in 1919 in Yasyk, Siberia, a small town on the Yenisey river about as far north as life can be sustained. It is built around three facts; thousands of Czech soldiers were left marooned in northern Russia by the collapse of the Russian Revolution; secretive, utopian communities of voluntary eunuchs flourished there throughout the 19th century; and there was a practice of taking a naive companion along on Siberian journeys with the intention of eating him.

“Meek has combined these facts with the fictional coexistence of a woman raising her son alone, a crazed Czech captain and his soldiers, and a group of religious eunuchs. Then a mysterious, charismatic stranger appears in their snowy village with a frightening story to tell, and their fragile societal balance is tipped off kilter. This is a heavily plotted book with many twists, turns and surprises.”

And you thought: they’re used to it. But that was how those who suffered less always thought about those who suffered more, that they were used to it, that they no longer felt it as you did. Nobody ever got used to it. All they learned to do was to stop letting it show.

“I certainly didn’t expect what I found when I first opened the book. A unique setting and idea, bringing together an army unit and religious fanatics in the harshest of climates, so that everything is a daily battle. This is a blindingly forthright story, one which poses many questions about the fragility of the human condition and makes you consider ‘what if’ over and over. The bleak frosty setting is well incorporated into the storylines and is almost a character in itself. I didn’t want to put this down.” – Rachel

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Published 2005
Cannongate
391 pages