Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Book review Tuesday: What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn

Last week I read Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 (which is especially impressive since it was O’Flynn’s first novel). It’s a quick read but it also packs an emotional punch, and I am still thinking about it days after finishing it.

what was lost

The novel begins in 1984 in the Midlands in England. Ten year-old Kate Meaney has set up her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends her free time patrolling the local mall, Green Oaks, casing the joint for suspicious individuals and keeping meticulous notes in her detective’s notebook. She is accompanied by Mickey, her toy monkey and partner at Falcon Investigations. Kate, whose mother abandoned her as a baby and whose father recently died, uses her detection activities to escape the realities of her life, including the fact that her grandmother wants to send her away to a boarding school and she has few friends other than Adrian, a twenty-two year old man who works at his father’s sweet shop.

Then Kate disappears.

The narrative skips forward nearly twenty years, to 2003, where we meet two people who work at Green Oaks, the mall where Kate conducted most of her detection. Without giving anything away, it becomes apparent that both of these people — Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a manager at a music store in the mall — are in some way connected to Kate Meaney. They learn about their shared connection, almost by accident, after Kurt starts seeing images of Kate appear on the CCTV cameras late at night.

The story is partly the story of Kate and partly the bittersweet love story of Kurt and Lisa. I was intrigued by both aspects of the book, including the central mystery about what happened to Kate. What I loved most, though, was how well O’Flynn captured what it is like to be a child lost in her own world of “detection.” O’Flynn excerpts Kate’s detective journal and absolutely nails the perspective of a curious, imaginative child. Here is a bit I particularly loved:

Thursday, 19 April

Man with the suntan and checked sports jacket in Vanezi’s again. He has new steel-rimmed dark glasses. Think he is American, looks like bad men in Columbo. Suspect he is a hired assassin staking out a subject. Beginning to think this could be the waitress with no neck. He stared at her a lot. Have yet to discover motive for her murder, but will attempt to engage her in casual conversation tomorrow, and if necessary I will warn her, but need more evidence on “Mr. Tan” first.

When leaving he dropped a lighter as he passed my table; think it was an attempt to view my notes. I quickly slid the book under my menu and he disguised his frustration. He is perhaps beginning to realize I am a worthy opponent.

When I was a kid, I used to do similar things with my friends: we’d “spy” on people and often feel sure that we were witnesses to illegal hijinks just waiting to happen. It was so thrilling to feel that we were on the verge of discovering something big; O’Flynn brings the reader right back to that feeling with Kate’s journal.

The character of Kate, in particular, is so lovable and heart-rending, a feeling which is compounded by the utter unfairness of her disappearance. The book is undeniably sad, but at the end of it, I had hope for the surviving characters; it didn’t leave me feeling depressed or deflated, a response to literature which I loathe. There were elements of hope and happiness mixed in with the tragedy.

Recommended for anyone looking to dip a toe into emotionally rich Man-Booker prize literature without diving into a thick literary tome.


Edited to add: After writing this review, I looked online and read a few reader reviews of this book and realized that I failed to mention the role that the shopping center, Green Oaks, plays in this novel. Indeed, the action of all three characters’ stories is centered around the mall and the author sprinkles in some heavy-handed allusions to the dehumanizing corporate power of the Shopping Mall, but for some reason, the descriptions of the mall itself did not resonate with me as powerfully as the glimpses into the inner emotional lives of the characters did. Yes, to some extent, all three characters’ emotional arcs are tied up with the mall itself, but to me, that was probably the least interesting aspect of the book. I just wanted to insert this little addendum lest it seem that I completely missed the whole mall aspect. I didn’t; I just didn’t care about it that much.

Book review Tuesday: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I never thought I was a historical fiction lover until I discovered Hilary Mantel. She is a master at resurrecting worlds from the past, breathing life into them, and making well-told stories compelling in new ways.

Wolf Hall is the first in a series of historical novels by Mantel focusing on Thomas Cromwell, who was an advisor to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and then, once Wolsey had died, an advisor to King Henry VIII during that exciting period when the King was having some — issues, shall we say — with his wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn — and Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleaves and, well, the list goes on. The second book in the series, which I’m currently tearing through, is Bring Up the Bodies. The third book has not yet been published, but if it follows in the footsteps of the first two, it will undoubtedly win the Man Booker Prize immediately upon its release. That’s right, both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Prize – Wolf Hall in 2009, Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. Impressive, huh?

wolf hall

I had heard some talk about Mantel’s books over the past year but wasn’t compelled to read any of them until I read this fascinating (and beautifully written) piece in the New Yorker about Mantel and her work. I dare you to read that piece and not want to devour all of Mantel’s books immediately. So, I bought Wolf Hall, and, once I had finished the long line of books ahead of it in my Kindle queue, I read it in a few days. It did not disappoint.

I won’t try to sum up the plot of the book – it begins in 1500 when Thomas Cromwell is still a child, growing up in fear of his abusive father, skips ahead twenty-seven years to when Cromwell is advising Wolsey, and ends in July 1535, with the execution of Thomas More. A lot of stuff happens: political dealings, divorce, torture, infidelity, love, betrayal. At the center of the story is Cromwell, a brilliant political actor who you can’t help but root for. And as Mantel traces Cromwell’s rise to power, she tells, through very human characters, a story about the changing face of England: its religious life, its politics, its monarchs, its populace. The sense of place in this novel is so palpable, I feel that I understand England better now for having read it. One of my favorite parts was the opening of the chapter entitled An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529:

Once, in the days of time immemorial, there was a king of Greece who had thirty-three daughters. Each of these daughters rose up in revolt and murdered her husband. Perplexed as to how he had bred such rebels, but not wanting to kill his own flesh and blood, their princely father exiled them and set them adrift on a rudderless ship.

Their ship was provisioned for six months. By the end of this period, the winds and tides had carried them to the edge of the known earth. They landed on an island shrouded in mist. As it had no name, the eldest of the killers gave it hers: Albina.

When they hit shore, they were hungry and avid for male flesh. But there were no men to be found. The island was home only to demons.

The thirty-three princesses mated with the demons and gave birth to a race of giants, who in turn mated with their mothers and produced more of their own kind. These giants spread over the whole landmass of Britain. There were no priests, no churches and no laws. There was also no way of telling the time.

After eight centuries of rule, they were overthrown by Trojan Brutus.

The story goes on: the Trojans defeated the giants, “led by Gogmagog,” who was thrown into the sea, and later, the Tudors, descendants of Brutus, entered the picture. “Beneath every history, another history.”

The most impressive facet of Mantel’s writing, to me, is how she humanizes historical figures, giving them complex motives and desires, making us rethink who is sympathetic and who is unsympathetic. For instance, one of the prominent characters in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, the man who refused to accept Henry as head of the Church in England after he sought to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Near my hometown, there is a church named for More, who was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935, making him St. Thomas More, but I didn’t know much about him before reading this book. As Mantel portrays him, More was a petty man, and a bit of a sadist who delighted in torturing heretics. He was also rather a coward, but he embraced his death as a martyr out of stubbornness and a twisted sort of self-interest. In Wolf Hall, Thomas More is in many ways Thomas Cromwell’s foil. Although they are both lawyers, men who study texts, Cromwell is a questioner, someone whose views evolve as he ages, whereas More is rigid, determined to hew to the rules of the Church. I loved this passage describing Cromwell’s thoughts about More, who he thinks of as “some sort of failed priest, a frustrated preacher:”

He never sees More – a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod – without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off of the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

I love that passage because it’s a perfect crystallization of the conflict between two common worldviews. The book is full of these sharp observations of life and human interaction and memory. And yet, nonetheless, the plotting is perfect and the book moves at a brisk clip.

In short, Mantel’s novels are breathtaking and wonderful. Even if you’re not a historical fiction fan, these books might change your mind.


Book review Tuesday: The Sea, by John Banville

I’ve been absolutely devouring books lately, like a starving person who can only take in nutrition through the eyes.  That’s a thing, right? One of the things that I love most about my new life as a writer is how much I get to read and consider it “work.”  I’ve learned that when left to my own devices, I’ll read a book every day or two, or sometimes two or three books at a time, and I just can’t get enough.  Substitute the word “read” for “inject” and “book” for “vial of heroin” and one might think I have a problem.

Anyway, I’ve been getting a ton of my recommendations from the Man Booker Prize. In case you’ve never heard of it, the Man Booker Prize is given out each year to the best novel written by someone from the UK, the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.  Their website helpfully lists all of the winners of the Prize as well as the books that were short-listed and long-listed for every year since 1969. For a book addict, the Man Booker Prize website is a dangerous website indeed.

I’ve downloaded and read quite a few of the Man Booker Prize winners and short-listers now, from various years.  One that I recently finished is The Sea, by Irish author John Banville, which won the Prize in 2005.


The story is narrated by a man (Max) whose wife has recently died of cancer.  While revisiting the trauma of her illness and death, Max also looks back on a certain childhood summer at the seaside when he became acquainted with a family, the Graces, who rented a house in the same resort town where he stayed with his family.  As an adult, he’s so hung up on the events of this particular summer that he moves back to that resort town, Ballyless, and takes a room in the house where the Graces used to stay, which has since been converted into a rooming house.  The book flashes between Max’s fresher recollections of his wife’s death and their life together and his old memories of the summer he spent with the Graces, a family he found fascinating.  However, as the novel progresses, we learn that something terrible happened that summer at the seaside, and that Max is still trying to come to terms with it.

The Sea was not an entirely satisfying read for me.  Some of the themes in the book seemed overly familiar, even a bit hackneyed, to me.  For example, the Graces are a family of a mother, father, fraternal twin children (one of whom, the boy, is mute and has webbed feet), and a governess.  I felt that Banville didn’t have any particularly new insights about the mysteriousness of twins, and his heavy-handed hints that the twins, Chloe and Myles, may have been sexually experimenting with one another seemed unnecessary.  Plus, I think Donna Tartt and George R.R. Martin have pretty much cornered the market on blonde fraternal twins having sex.  Maybe that’s unfair.  But there are only so many times we can drag out that trope before it gets a bit stale.  Some of the other themes in the book (watching a loved one die of cancer, first love, the perils of aging) also struck me as rather well worn.

I also felt that Banville failed to adequately build suspense for the final, terrible event that occurs at Ballyless.  The foreshadowing was clouded with too much exposition about the narrator’s fascination with Mrs. Grace, the twins’ mother, his contemporary observations about his adult daughter, and his myriad complaints about aging.  I understand that these layers are what add to the complexity of the book, but I found myself skimming whole paragraphs just to get to the meat of the story.

However, the novel is very well written, and contains some very insightful observations about life, particularly about the differences between adolescence and adulthood.  This was one of my favorites, describing how Max felt after his first kiss with Chloe:

Happiness was different in childhood.  It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things – new experiences, new emotions – and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self.  And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck.  There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown-ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and, when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening. I was myself and at the same time someone else, someone completely other, completely new.  As I walked behind her amid the trudging crowd in the direction of the Strand Café I touched a fingertip to my lips, the lips that had kissed hers, half expecting to find them changed in some infinitely subtle but momentous way.

I love that observation about collecting experiences in adolescence and stacking them up to create a vision of yourself.  So perfect.

In all, I enjoyed Banville’s evocative writing, but I felt a bit let down by the psychodrama aspects of the plot.  Maybe the synopses I read promised more than they could deliver in terms of the “dark,” mysterious nature of the plot.  Luckily, the book is a rather quick read (only 198 pages, according to my Kindle), so it doesn’t require a huge time commitment to get through, so why not give it a try?