Had this book won the Booker Prize, all my fears about the dumbing down of the Booker would have been realized. As it is, it did not progress from the longlist, and that’s a good thing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the book. Set in a small town Solace in 1970s Ontario, the narrative switches between three characters: Clara, Elizabeth and Liam. Eight year old Clara’s family is in crisis after Clara’s older sister Rose has left home and disappeared without trace. She stands vigil by the window, willing Rose to re-appear. Rose doesn’t, but instead she sees a car draw up at the house next door and a young man get out and let himself into the house. The owner of the house, Elizabeth Orchard, is in hospital and Clare has promised to feed the cat in her absence. Unknown to her, Elizabeth has died and left the house to Liam, the young man, who had been a neighbour of Elizabeth’s many years earlier. Many years earlier Elizabeth, unable to have children, had welcomed Liam into her house and come to love him as her own son. Liam had only re-established contact with Elizabeth in recent years, and was surprised that Elizabeth had left the home to him. His own marriage had just broken down, and so he moved up to Solace with the intention of selling the house and working out what to do next.
It’s a pleasant enough, holiday read: I read it in an afternoon, sitting on the back deck. All the ends are neatly tied up and it’s a slightly unsettling feel-good story, but it’s certainly not Booker material. A Women’s Weekly Good Read maybe. But surely not the Booker
My rating: 6/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2021
I must be getting cynical. You look at the headlines and peep over the edge of the cauldron of the bubbling social media brew, and you know that you’re going to see all this moulded into fiction within the writing-and-publishing lead time that drives the book industry. MeToo, neurodiversity, gender, bushfires, climate change: I bet that readers in the future will be able to predict the publication date of a book by its theme (although, I do wonder if that hasn’t always been the case). Capturing the zeitgeist, yes, but there’s a narrow line that separates it from a form of political bashing-over-the-head. Perhaps it was because I’ve just watched the contortions of COP26, or been listening to a series of podcasts on Australia’s response to the climate crisis, or because I read The Guardian, but Richard Powers’ Bewilderment felt too heavy-handed for me.
Theo Byrne is a widowed astrobiologist, working on a long-term government-funded project programming simulations of life on other planets, spinning tales of other forms of life and society amongst the immensity of space. These are the stories he tells his son Robin, a brilliant and neurodiverse nine-year old, whose obsessions and volatility have led to his threatened expulsion from school. Both father and son are left bereft by the death of Alys, an environmental activist, in a car-crash two years before the story starts. When the school issues an ultimatum about medication or expulsion, Theo turns to a family friend who is working on a technology called Decoded Neurofeedback. Cocooned into an MRI machine, Robin learns to control his mental waves to approximate those of another subject, who just happens, in an ethical WTF, to be his mother whose neural records had been retained from her participation in earlier iterations of the technology. He adapts quickly to the learning, and begins to draw on not only his mother’s emotional and intellectual brain waves, but also on her world view and even, at a stretch, her relationship with Theo, Robin’s father. Already attuned through his father’s work to the contingency and explosive variation of life – in all its forms – Robin’s awareness of the climate crisis is heightened to the point of anguish. Publicity about the Decoded Neurofeedback technology catapults Robin into social media celebrity which, driven by his mother’s environmental passion that he is now channelling, he uses as a platform for activism in a world hurtling towards climate oblivion.
I hadn’t noticed the ‘Science Fiction’ designation on the back cover of this book, and when I heard someone else talking about it, I had felt that it sounded a bit implausible. However, for me, science fiction is most accessible when it is written in near-time, with the emphasis on the human rather than the science. I know that neurofeedback is increasingly being drawn into the medical and psychological mainstream, and there are many characters in this book who are familiar: a Donald Trump-type President (maybe even the Real Donald Trump) who tweets in capital letters and exclamation marks, and a Greta Thunburg- type character, an “oval-faced girl in tight pigtails”, called Inger Alder, who inspires Robin to action. There’s a nice little twist in the title with the inclusion of “wild”, reflecting its environmental theme. Also running through the book are allusions to Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers for Algernon, but perhaps these references should have come with asterisks and links to an online bookshop, because it is important to the plot which becomes patently obvious to anyone who has read Keyes’ story or seen the film ‘Charly’ which it spawned. Although, perhaps it would have been more powerful if you were unaware of these antecedents.
The book is written from Theo’s point of view, with both Robin’s and his wife Ally’s words in italics, as if they are coming from somewhere else. There are no chapters, but instead a series of short episodes, each marked by capital letters in the opening sentence, giving the book a filmic character. Emotionally it is powerful, just as Keyes’ short-story was, leaving you with a hollowness at the loss of passion and intelligence, as the world and the protagonists of the book subside into a dark silence.
Much of the science in this book passed me by, but it is a testament to Powers’ writing that, instead of repelling, its complexity helped build a cosmological imagination, against which our heedlessness and intransigence in relation to climate and the environment seems particularly bone-headed. I regret, though, that the book veered into telling and not showing. It was just a bit too didactic for me.
My rating: 8.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I read this book because it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It merits its place on the shortlist, but its inclusion validates my fears that the Booker Prize would lose its distinctively Commonwealth nature, as it is a very American book.
I can remember when I was young, I sometimes deliberately stretched out the ending of a book because I feared that it was going to end badly for the characters. If I just left them there, suspended, the bad thing wouldn’t happen to them. Magical thinking, I know, but that’s very much the way that I felt when I only had about 50 pages of this book left to go. I would make excuses that my reading circumstances weren’t good enough- I was too tired, the light was poor, I’d enjoy it better tomorrow – but I know that it was because I feared the ending.
Over the last 18 months or so, I have been remediating my dearth of knowledge about American history by listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s history videos on Facebook. I really knew very little about the Reconstruction era: that 13 year period between 1863 and 1877 immediately following the American Civil War. The whole concept of a civil war chills me, with the contortions of morality and identity that must take place in order to be able to fight someone who shares language, place, experience. And then when it stops- what then? How do you step back from that?
Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so.
George’s sudden plan to plant peanuts is triggered by his need to turn his hand to something. He and his wife Isabelle are mute in their grief for their son, lost in the war. Never particularly close, now Isabelle in particular is engulfed by mourning, and largely oblivious to the two men in the barn, and George’s absence working the land by day.
Suddenly their son Caleb returns. He has sustained facial injuries, which we learn are not a battle injury, but instead meted out for desertion. His childhood friend- indeed, more than a friend- August had visited Caleb’s parents earlier to inform them of their son’s supposed death, and their secret sexual relationship starts up again. When they are discovered, a whole cascade of events is triggered, leading to George, Caleb and Prentiss fleeing north.
This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it’s hard to believe that the author is only 29. The characters have complexity, although George’s confidante, the prostitute Clementine, is less well drawn. It captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness had not yet solidified into inevitability. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, but it didn’t make the cut. It did make it as an Oprah Book Club read, for what it’s worth.
I really enjoyed it – once I had the courage to finish it.
For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.
At least the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ had a wedding or two. This book has four funerals, held against the backdrop of South African political change, as members of the Swart family die -first mother Rachel, then her husband Manie, then daughter Astrid, son Anton- leaving just the youngest daughter, Amor. It is left to Amor to make good a deathbed promise that her father Manie made to her mother Rachel, thirty years earlier. Rachel had begged her husband to promise that he would give the old Lombard house – just three rooms- to Salome, the domestic servant who has nursed Rachel through a long illness that has stripped her of all dignity. But time has gone on and somehow the house never gets transferred to Salome who continues to work in the house, always present, mostly invisible.
The book is divided into four parts, each named for the protagonist who will die – Ma, Pa, Astrid, Anton – although I admit that I didn’t realize that until after I finished. What I was aware of was the corrosive effects of apartheid that did not disappear with its dismantling, in spite of the hope of the Mandela years and twisted by the disillusionment with the politicians who followed him. Corrosive at a macro-scale, but corrosive individually too, as superiority and resentment is turned inwards.
Religion has much to answer for here. The thin-lipped disapproval of Rachel’s late-life conversion back to Judaism by the family steeped in Dutch Reformed Church tradition gives way to the self-serving fanaticism of an evangelical church as Pa (Manie) carves off part of his land to donate to his new church. Astrid, living in a gated community becomes Catholic, a religion which allows confession without contrition, while Anton’s wife enjoys the indulgence of Eastern mystic religion as a hobby. When the promise to give Salome her house is finally fulfilled, it is not through any religious impulse, but because Amor is aware that it has been unjustly withheld by her family, through inattention and obliviousness to this invisible woman who had been so loyal to them for so many decades.
The narrative voice in this book is striking. You’re never really quite sure who is speaking: it is someone familiar with the family and their weaknesses, wry, somewhat judgmental. The narrative swoops from one character to the next, as if it is a camera on a boom, an all-seeing eye. It means that your focus can switch from scene to scene without any warning which is jarring at first. At times the narrator ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by turning around to address you, the reader. It’s a strange, but effective technique.
Deaths occur suddenly in this book, and they are almost skated over. The death itself is not as important as its implications for the people who are left. Meanwhile, the unfulfilled promise hangs over the family, almost like a curse. It is denied for too long, and then when it is finally conceded, it is almost a poisoned chalice. Salome’s son, most certainly, does not show the gratitude that other members of the Swart family might have expected. The land and the now-derelict house are now subject to a land claim under land redistribution, and Salome may well lose again.
I was rather surprised when this book made the shortlist for the Booker Prize, I must confess. In many ways, it’s a multi-generational family story, although it is strengthened by being placed against the political background. It’s real strength, for me, is the narrative voice. I wonder if its presence as a non-American book in a shortlist dominated by American writers (just as many predicted) might weigh in its favour.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: It is shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.
One of the big existential questions that we all grapple with at some stage is ‘Why am I here?’ An associated, and equally fascinating question is ‘What if I wasn’t?’ Light Perpetual takes this question, starting off with the real-life death of 168 people who died in the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in November 1944 in a V-2 attack on a Saturday lunchtime, with the shop crowded with shoppers. Fifteen of those 168 were aged under 11. Spufford fictionalizes five of these children: sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. A different book might have gone backwards, tracing who the children were and how they came to be there, but Spufford takes a different approach. Instead, he drops the bomb in the first pages, then jumps forward as if the five children were not killed. In fact, they were not even in the store. Instead, they lived lives untouched by that November 1944 attack.
The book is told in chunks of time, dated from when the bomb fell (but not on them). So we have five years on in 1949; twenty years on in 1964 (Beatles time); thirty-five years to 1979 (Thatcher time); fifty years to 1994 (Cool Brittania); sixty five years on in 2009 (post-GFC). Each of these chunks features the five children separately. Rather neat, really: five times five. It’s like a ‘Seven-up’ series on the page, with less regular check-ins and a smaller number of subjects. As such, it deals mental illness, promiscuity, wealth-acquisition, marriages, divorces, Right and Left wing politics, success, education, physical illness and decline…. all the sorts of things raised during the Seven-Up series. Nothing happens as such, although each life (for good or ill) is lived either as a series of transformations, or by putting one foot in front of the other. Decisions are made or not made, options open up or shrivel away.
I must confess that it took me more than half the book to get the characters established securely in my mind. I had to go back to the previous section to find the character there to refresh my memory before launching into the next time frame, and in this regard a table of contents at the start would have been really useful to locate the time shifts in the book.
The treatment of time and chance reminded me a lot of Kate Atkinson’s work, a writer I really enjoy. My library, which persists in labelling books by genre, has designated it as Science Fiction but it’s a far more human book than that.
It is the writing, particularly at the start and the finish of the book that lifts it above the rather quotidian, eventually inconsequential events of human life that it describes. The scene where the bomb drops is like a freeze-frame, minutely examined- really excellent, challenging writing. The middle sections, like their subject matter, are more human and less complex. The final section of the book, as our subjects face their own mortality, becomes more abstract again in its reflection on permanence and change, although this time it is infused with familiarity and even affection.
My rating: 8.5/10
Read because: It has been long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize