Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Booker Prize 1969: Something to Answer For by PH Newby

published 1969






[Leah] walked out of the room across the hall and into her own bedroom where, because she had left the door wide open, he could see her drag an enormous black suitcase out from behind a wardrobe. She had it open by the side of the bed and was throwing her clothes into it. The first garment to go in was a fur coat he had not seen before. It was a smoky brown; musquash, he thought, the sort of thing that would set you back eight hundred guineas at Swears and Wells. Then suits, stockings, underclothes. She was just throwing them in. She was a poor packer…

With him in the boat were Leah with suitcases, Mrs K with her cases and baskets… They were not going back. This was the end. What they could not carry with them was lost to Nasser…

As an American citizen Leah counted on being put ashore in Cyprus and flown to the States where Townrow supposed she would at once set about trying to realise the value of whatever her father had left.



observations: This is the book that won the very first Booker Prize, back in 1969. Most people couldn’t name it, and truly it seems that it would be completely forgotten if it hadn’t won the then unknown award. It is a strange, surreal book with an unreliable narrator and constant changes of tone and style and even name – there is a continuing thread that the protagonist, Townrow, is forever being addressed by different names and given different backstories: it’s never clear if these are actually his. It’s all a bit John le Carre, a bit Graham Greene, but sadly without their talent. The book is set 13 years before publication, during the Suez crisis of 1956. There is a whole thread of a man who may or may not be dead, his funeral and his coffin, which may contain guns rather than a body, a woman taking the body on a boat, a man dressed up as a woman.

That all sounds more entertaining than it is, but the book does have the occasional moment, for example where Townrow tries to have sex with Leah from the extract above, who is plainly reluctant.
She seemed all elbows, shoulder blades and heels. It was like trying to make love to a dough-mixing machine. She wanted it, didn’t she, otherwise why all this hissing and moaning?
This is far from being the best book on the 1969 shortlist - the blog is featuring them all - and strangely is one of the ones that has worn most badly – others on the list feel fresh and modern and relevant by comparison.

The lady in the picture has been packing for a much happier reason than Leah: she is a GI war bride going to join her husband.

6 comments:

  1. If I was to try one of these from 1969, it would be Spark. Newby - avoid

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    1. I can't argue with that - I'm glad I've read it but I can't actually recommend it to anyone else...

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  2. Moira - This is interesting perhaps from a purely historical perspective. But as a novel? Perhaps not so much...It does sound pretty surreal actually. Interesting how what people think is prize-worthy changes over the years.

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    1. Yes, it's a mysterious business isn't it, and impossible to predict. I can't really recommend this one, but still, as I say above, glad I read it. It's very rare that reading any book is time completely wasted.

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  3. I like the picture a lot. And the idea of the book sounds interesting too. Too bac the book is not as good as the idea.

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    1. Tracy, I love that picture, I think it is so beautiful and full of character and stories. I've been hoping to use it for ages, so something good definitely came from the book. I look at it & wonder what happened to the GI bride in the picture: I hope she had a wonderful life. She looks really positive to me so I hope so.

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