Saturday, December 18, 2021

Three More Short Takes on the Short List

 See my reviews of the other 3 Booker Prize short-list nominees here.

The question raised for me this year, and every year, really, is what type of book should win this prize? The nominees tend to highlight important international stories: the end of South African apartheid (The Promise); the Sri Lankan civil war (A Passage North); a miscarriage of British justice against a colonial immigrant (The Fortune Men); climate change (Bewilderment). Great Circle and No One is Talking About This highlight the more personal problems encountered by women in a man’s world -- though that certainly counts as an important international story, as well, just not as circumscribed. The question remains, is the winner the book that tells the best story, or that addresses the most important problem? I would favor the best story, and therefore to me, Great Circle should have won over The Promise, though all six nominees were of course excellent. 

My favorite this year: Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead.

Great Circle is a great story about women and flight. Marian is obsessed with flight from early days. Her father died in shipwreck, a captain who didn’t go down with the ship but saved his babies instead, while mother took advantage of the disaster to disappear. Marian and her twin brother are raised by a professorial uncle in the country, where she learns to drive and repair cars, and becomes a delivery driver for a Prohibition-era smuggler. She yearns to fly, and gets her wish when she catches the eye of the area’s top smuggler. Their relationship keeps her grounded, though, so she eventually frees herself. Then follow years of self-sufficiency in Alaska until World War II, when she is recruited to a women’s auxiliary flying force, delivering planes so pilots can do the more important work of fighting. It is here that she discovers love, and a goal: to complete a great circle, flying around the globe from pole to pole.

Interspersed with Marian’s story is that of Hadley, a young actress with a tumultuous career who will be playing Marian in a film of the pilot’s life. Hadley’s story shows that even in the twenty-first century, women still face the frustrating limitations of living in a man’s world. 

I love this book because it is made up of stories of women who subvert the male agenda for their own personal desire. These two very human women, and the characters around them, live out their interesting lives not always aware of how their fierce independence sets them apart: they are just being themselves. This soaring book provides a panoramic view of several decades of American history, with side jaunts into wilderness tracking, the art world, airplane maintenance, and going incognito by changing gender. As thrilling to read as watching a young woman in an open cockpit turn her biplane in loop-de-loops.

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Mattan was a Somali immigrant in Cardiff in the early 50s, convicted and hanged for a murder he did not commit. This novel is based on the true story of the first execution that the British justice system later overturned as wrongful. Mahmood’s story reminds me of Marian’s in some ways: the youngest of several brothers, he found the only way to see the world was to leave home as a merchant marine. He sails away from hot, dry Somaliland to the cold and damp British Isles, where he falls in love with a Welsh woman who bears him three boys. It’s hard for Black men to find work, so Mahmood turns to gambling and shoplifting. But he did not wield the razor that killed the Jewish shopkeeper. 

It’s a sad, sad tale, even sadder knowing it’s true. The author has not tried to make Mahmood into an unrealistic hero. He moves through the various phases of grief in reaction to the charge and conviction, staying a long time in denial, then becoming more religious, then hoping to find the actual murderer. At times I was reminded of the fatalistic futility of Camus’ The Stranger, set in about the same time period. 

Mohamed imagines the lives of our hero, the victim, and their families with compassion. I am glad to have learned of this landmark case, even though it broke my heart.

A Passage North, by Anuk Arudpragasam

This is another book that reminded me of The Stranger. Krishan learns that Rani, a woman who used to take care of his aging grandmother, has died. Rani was traumatized by the death of her two sons during Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, and found some measure of healing by taking care of an old woman far from the scenes of carnage. Krishan travels north to that former battleground for the funeral, and the novel is mostly his reminiscences during the long voyage: about Rani and his grandmother; about the war, which he avoided by studying in India; and about a brief romance he had with an activist for women’s and workers’ rights. Krishan recounts every moment of the funeral ceremony, including a long walk in dry heat to the cremation grounds. 

The book is full of slow, meditative passages on love and the approach of death. It’s only my second glimpse into this small country’s bloody past; my first was Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. It’s a philosophical reflection on the constant struggle between the urgency to create a better world, and the necessity of just getting by.  

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