Saturday, August 13, 2011

Two from the Man Booker Prize Longlist

As discussed previously, not all the books on the Man Booker Prize Longlist are available yet in the United States, but I'm doing what I can to read what I have access to in between chapters of Ulysses.

Pigeon English
First up - Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, which I borrowed from a friend, who had an Advanced Readers Copy.  I really enjoyed this. Harri, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is a (possibly illegal) immigrant from Ghana, living in the projects in London. The book is full of a mixture of slang and beliefs from Ghana and his new community. Like most children, he doesn't fully understand what is going on around him, and has no grasp of the danger and violence he is surrounded by. I think that makes the story more compelling than it would be if the author hit me over the head with it.  It is his innocence contrasted to the world that makes me think of some kind of weird hybrid between Room and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  

If the name Kelman sounds familiar, you might be thinking of James Kelman, who won a Booker in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late, which remains one of my favorite Booker Prize winners.  As far as I know, there is no relation between the two. James Kelman is Scottish, and Stephen Kelman grew up in the projects of Luton, England (much like Harri!), according to his author profile on the Hougthton Mifflin Harcourt site.  This is Stephen Kelman's first novel, and I do hope it makes it to the shortlist.  

It was my misfortune to read an ARC of this, because I've heard that the finalized book includes a glossary of all the slang used in the book.  This would have been helpful at times.  I loved the language in it, and felt it added a lot to the dynamics between the characters, as well as instilling the sense of youth that it needs to have.  I'm tempted to add "Gowayou" to my own vocabulary.

Snowdrops: A NovelThe second selection was Snowdrops by A.D. Miller.  This is another first novel from the list of nominees.  It is the story of Nick, an American lawyer, and his four years working in Moscow, written in the form of a letter to someone he is in love with, I think we're supposed to assume a fiancee.

It is the Moscow of the 2000s, when capitalism has taken hold. The past has taught people not to ask questions and stay out of trouble, and the culture has morphed into one where if you have enough cash, you can buy anything you need. Nick sees the manifestations of this every day in his work, where they assist in business deals that are clearly at least ethically borderline.  I wonder how much of this is from the author's real experience, since he was the Russian correspondent for The Economist from 2004-2007.  (Actually, there is a minor character in the novel that I suspect is where he placed himself, the "only friend" that Nick thinks he has).

The book starts and ends with a dead body, and in between involves a bunch of scam artists and frigid surroundings.  I tend to get frustrated with passive characters, and to me, Nick could do something and doesn't, and that drives me crazy.  He seems content to watch the drama surrounding his life unfold, kind of like that paper snowflake on the cover!

I'm not much on the story, but I like the way it was told.  The descriptions of Moscow are vivid, but not in a way that would make you want to visit.  

"Russia is like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn't do it if you're the kind of person who gets anxious or guilty. Because you'll crack."
This was a quick read.  Not having read the other nominees yet, I can't make a definitive pick for who I think should be on the shortlist, but I am not sure Snowdrops belongs there.   I am not sure it has the staying power that I think Pigeon English might have.  One interesting theme in both novels is isolation and loneliness - one from being an immigrant, one from being an expatriate.  Both Harri and Nick try to become insiders in their new cultures.  One is a pushover, and one is not. 


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