2007 Booker/Pulitzer/IMPAC Winners

12:32 Tue 31 Mar 2009
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Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007: The Gathering, Anne Enright.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007: The Road, Cormac McCarthy.
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2007: Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson.

I read The Gathering and Out Stealing Horses this month, and read The Road in August 2008.

Unlike the 2008 winners, which all shared the theme of exile, the 2007 winners share the theme of family, and particularly parent-child, relationships. They’re also all written by Westerners, and include a book written by a woman and a book written in a non-English language (Norwegian).

I’m quite surprised by which of these books I preferred. I think they come out in the opposite to what I would have predicted before I read them.

I’m a big Cormac McCarthy fan, but I just wasn’t that impressed by The Road, his tale of a boy and his father struggling to survive in an America ravaged by some unspecified catastrophe. It was good, certainly, and held my interest, but it was a long way from his best work. I think he overdid it a little with his determination to be spare in his writing. I also didn’t think it added much, in terms of ideas, to the postapocalyptic genre. Perhaps books don’t have to add much to their genres in order to be amazing, but The Road didn’t do enough overall, in my opinion, to earn the plaudits it received. (Many of which, it seemed, came from people who didn’t seem to recognize that the genre had existed for a long time before McCarthy went near it.) I didn’t think it compared well to No Country for Old Men, but in many ways it was closer in theme to Blood Meridian—and it really wasn’t anywhere near as good as that phenomenal book. Finally, I wasn’t too impressed with the ending, and thought that it was something of a cop-out, which I really didn’t expect from McCarthy.

Out Stealing Horses started very strongly. I loved the first chapter, which describes the protagonist settling into his new home, a cabin in rural Norway, and encountering his neighbor out with his dog at night. It wasn’t overdone, it very clearly established the voice of the protagonist, and it made me eager to read more. The novel concerns a man late in his life who moves to a rural cabin in the aftermath of the death of his wife, and who goes over his relationship with his father as a boy. The loose alternation between his ‘current’ life and his boyhood is well done, and there’s certainly enough going on in both timelines—despite the deceptively simple exterior—to draw the reader in. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t maintain the standard of the first chapter all the way through, but it does remain strong throughout, and the characters are all interestingly portrayed. Ultimately, I preferred it to The Road, although not by a lot.

the Gathering was the best of the three. It follows Veronica, a daughter in a large Irish family, after the death of her brother Liam, who she was very close to when they were younger. Much of it concerns her relationship with her mother, as well as with her siblings and husband. It was an extremely Irish book, in the sense of being situated very much in Ireland culturally and geographically. I loved a lot of the writing in it, and there were sections of it that made me stop to go over them multiple times in appreciation. I loved this, from Veronica’s trip on the Brighton line:

Haywards Heath
Burgess Hill
Names so silly and twee they must be made up. The constant surprise of this land, that it is actually green and pleasant. That it is actually there.
—p41, Anne Enright, The Gathering, Black Cat, New York 2007

That passage expresses rather well (and succinctly) many of my own thoughts about being in England.

As well as pieces I loved, there were bits that I hated, such as:

There are men who would do anything, asleep, and I am not sure what stops them when they wake. I do not know how they draw a line.
—p134, Anne Enright, The Gathering, Black Cat, New York 2007

That manages to combine the slandering of an entire gender with an apparent endorsement of the concept of thoughtcrime, which is impressive but not in a good way. This raises one of the aspects of the novel that I found most disturbing, which is that a tremendous amount of it had to do with the uncovering of things that were in one way or another shameful or pathetic. It seems to be pushing the idea that underneath, everyone is petty, or dirty, or horrible, or something bad. It did not do this in a hopeful way in any sense, to condemn hypocrisy or push for an acceptance of actual humanity, but rather in a broad wash of loathing (self- and other-directed). Despite this, I thought it was fantastically well-written, and the best novel of the three.

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