Girl, Woman, Other is an unconventional novel in the sense that it doesn’t have a plot, doesn’t have a particularly linear timeline, and doesn’t have a single focal character. What it is, essentially, is a collection of twelve different, loosely linked character studies that combine to create a sort of picture of black heritage in Britain.
The twelve narratives are grouped into four sets of three, each set has relatively tight connections with the others in that set, but the four sets are connected sometimes in tangential ways. Each narrative is fully and beautifully told, centring on a black woman but with a lively and diverse cast of supporting characters - sometimes generations of that character’s family, sometimes friends, sometimes employers or offspring.
Each of the twelve characters is sufficiently different to maintain interest and avoid any blurring between them. They range, for example, from a lesbian theatre dramatist, to a city banker, to a Northumbrian farmer, to a narcissistic schoolteacher. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some of them are happier than others. Taken together, though, they challenge a number of pre-conceptions: e.g. that black skin was not seen in Britain before the Windrush; that the black community is somehow homogenous; that black kids have lower expectations than their white counterparts. We see in great detail the complexity of the backgrounds of many Black Britons; the systematic stifling of ambition and opportunity that Black kids experience; and the power of familial expectations and the perils of wanting something different from life.
Girl, Woman, Other does have a couple of codas. The first is an after party following the opening of a play by Amma, the star of the first narrative. This brings together some of the characters and offers an opportunity for some set-piece politicking. If the novel has a weak spot, this is it. The second coda is much more powerful, as one of the characters discovers her true heritage. The reader will already have worked this out, but the salient feature is more the character’s reaction than the actual fact of it.
This remarkable collection of narratives is dauntingly long to start with, but after the first two or three stories it is very hard to put down. It is written in a compelling, immediate style (almost verse like with line spacing and lack of capital letters), and gives a very convincing insight into lives that the reader might never have previously noticed. This is an important work that gives a better understanding of our country, and an appreciation that the story is still being written.
My Sister The Serial Killer is a lively novel set in modern, middle class Nigeria. Korede narrates the story, explaining how she has to clear up the mess left by her sister Ayoola as her relationships end in ever more gory circumstances. At first, the killings might seem plausible; Ayoola might have ended up in difficult situations that went wrong. But as the novel proceeds, the justifications become ever-more sketchy and the situations look ever-more avoidable.
In between the killings, we get a picture of Korede as an over-protective, jealous sister who pretends to have reconciled herself to being the less attractive of the sisters. There are all sorts of catty, cutting comments about Ayoola and the advantages that her good looks bring her. Meanwhile, Korede is keen that we should know that anything she herself might lack in looks, she more than makes up for in guile.
This is all presented against a vivid depiction of modern Lagos where education is the key to a bright future but where witchcraft bubbles along not far beneath the surface. There is a humour (much of it pretty black) running through the narrative.
The key point of intrigue, though, is trying to work out whether Korede is a reliable narrator, trying to extricate Ayoola from her various misdeeds, or whether Korede is an unreliable narrator with a much more sinister gameplan. These two alternative readings seem equally valid and are never resolved...
My Sister is a short, quick read that should leave most readers pretty satisfied.
Lanny is a young boy, growing up in an ordinary village with ordinary people - underneath which Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient burry man, lies listening to the inane conversation above.
The novel is narrated from various viewpoints: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete, an elderly and accomplished artist. The narratives all centre around the relationship between the narrator and Lanny, leading the reader to imagine this some kind of reminiscence about the formative years of a now great man. And interspersed, we have the bored interjections of Dead Papa Toothwort who presents individual lines of conversations one might hear down the pub (somewhat irritatingly presented in word-art form that is mightily difficult to read on a Kindle).
So, for the first half of then novel, we see an emerging friendship between Lanny and Pete as the old painter tries to help Lanny to develop his own artistic skills. Lanny’s parents are happy with this as it provides free childcare, allowing them to pursue their own interests (Lanny’s Mum is a crime writer and Lanny’s Dad works long hours in London).
Then, half way through, Dead Papa Toothwort decides to roll the dice and make something interesting happen in the village. This, apparently, is something he is wont to do every century or so. And Lanny disappears. Fingers point, gossip spreads. People question Pete’s motives; they question Lanny’s Mum and Dad’s parenting techniques. Kids at school who ostracised Lanny start to get remorseful...
There is something bucolic about the novel. It blends folk tradition with very current withering about house prices and commuting. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Reservoir 13/The Reservoir Tapes in that although Lanny is the glue that binds the story together, it is more of an observational drama about village life and personal interests.
Lanny is stunningly well told; the lines drip from the page and the reader is left wanting more. The ending is almost satisfying.
Booker longlisted. Surely a shoo in for the shortlist (or more?)
I got this book out of the library this morning and started reading it early afternoon. I cannot put it down and am already nearly a quarter of the way through. I have heard of John Lanchester but up until now never read one of his books. So far the praise I have heard of the author has not been overstated. Although not always easy to read the book is compelling.
It's Monday morning and Mr Phillips puts on his suit, takes his briefcase and heads off for the station for his daily commute into London. The thing is, Mr Phillips lost his job on Friday.
Mr Phillips is a man caught in the wrong era. He was perfectly crafted for the 1970s - sexist, lazy, conservative. Unfortunately, he finds himself out-evolved in the 1990s, 50 years old and trained in yesterday's accountancy skills. He has spent his life wearing blinkers, going to work, coming home, reluctantly raising children and avoiding his neighbours. In this novel, John Lanchester lets us see the Monday through Mr Phillips's eyes, giving us an interior soundtrack of Mr Phillips's brain. It's actually a revelation. Yes, there's heaps of sex - or fantasies of sex because, as Mr Phillips explains, if you put a penny in a jar for every time you did it in the first year together and then took a penny out every time you did it after that, the jar would never empty. In fact, Mr Phillips spends much of his time working out little mathematical puzzles including the amount of downtime he will have in his life and the time before each lottery draw he should buy a ticket to have the probability of hitting the jackpot exceed the probability of dying before the draw.
Having decided to set out for the city as though going to work, Mr Phillips inevitably has to break out of his rut - since his rut has made him redundant. This gives him a chance to notice things he has never noticed before. He notices parks, tennis players (of the female persuasion), sex clubs, bus routes, people. He has a whole series of new experiences, most of which he struggles to ignore. Mr Phillips doesn't actually want the freedom he has suddenly acquired whilst, paradoxically, not seeming to be overly concerned at his unemployment. If you wanted a classic diagnosis, you'd have to say Mr Phillips is in extreme denial.
What makes the novel work is the counterpoint between an unlikeable man at the personal level, and the unpleasant traits of London and wider society laid out for analysis and dissection. You can see the greed, the lack of morality, the extreme politics, the general decadence and the white vans. All the while, set in a place where everybody judges everyone else on their relative wealth and/or status. Or, perhaps more accurately, where everyone assumes that other people are judging them on these grounds when, in fact, nobody is noticing them at all.
Mr Phillips is not really a plot novel. Things happen, but there's no connecting narrative drive although there are hints of Ulysses about the pointless journey and filling of time. Mostly, it is a character driven novel that relies on the humour and understatement of the narrative. Plus, there's the Salmon of Wisdom.