If you know me at all you may be surprised to see that I have just read two novels which have been long-listed for the Orange Prize. I rarely read newly published books, with the exception of crime novels, because I'm so often disappointed by them and because there are so many wonderful classics out there that I haven't got to yet. At the moment this is exacerbated by the fact that I am trying to do A Century of Books challenge, which confines me to the twentieth century. So what am I doing with these two? Well, I had a nice email from Quercus Books, who published both of them, and thought they sounded intriguing. And certainly I got something from both of them, but to be honest I am glad I can run back to the old stuff now.
Island of Wings is a first novel by Karin Altenberg, a Swedish archaeologist. Swedish, yes, but writing in English, her 'second language'. Before we pooh-pooh that, let's remember Joseph Conrad who, though I have never got on with his novels, pulled the language bit off pretty well (he was of course Polish). But I have to say that though I had not taken Karin's nationality on board at first, I was finding myself rather bothered at times by what seemed to me slightly clumsy writing style. I am terribly fussy about the way people express themselves, and have had several rants here in the past about reading books in translation, especially from the French, which often really offends my rather over-sensitive ear. So when I found out that she was writing in a language not her first, it did explain things a bit.
Now of course the language issue may not trouble others at all, so what about the plot and the characters? Well, what drew me to the novel in the first place was that it was set on St Kilda, an amazingly remote island in the Outer Hebrides, about which I didn't know much at all. Taking place in 1830, the story concerns a Calvinist minister, Neil MacKenzie, who comes to the island as a missionary, accompanied by his young wife Lizzie. He is determined to bring the islanders to God and to drag them into the 19th century. They live in extraordinary squalour, their lives are primitive in the extreme, but their morality is wonderfully admirable, though Neil can't see that. Lizzie on the other hand develops great sympathy for them, despite being unable to speak Gaelic. The whole background to this is absolutely fascinating, and Altenberg's archeaological training has served her really well here. Unfortunately I can't really say the same for the characters, or perhaps rather for their relationship, which of course has been imagined by Altenberg even though the people themselves really existed. Bascially I didn't find myself totally convinced, and this was not helped at all by the dialogue which was frankly terribly anachronistic in places. But of course what kept me reading was the fascination of these people's lives in this unbelievably harsh environment, Neil's struggles with his religious beliefs, Lizzie's pain at the loss of several of her babies, the inevitable deterioration of their relationship. I will be amazed if this makes the shortlist and even more so if it wins, but I learned a lot from it and I'm glad I read it.
Lord of Misrule is a very different kettle of fish. Set in 1970s West Virginia, this novel concerns small-track horse racing, not a subject with which I had even the faintest familiarity. The main protagonist is attractive, charismatic Tommy Hansel, who turns up with a scam in mind -- he will buy four unknown horses, race them at long odds, make loads of money, and disappear fast. You can imagine of course that things don't go according to plan.
Well - I was complaining about style, or the lack of it, in Altenberg's novel and here we have the opposite problem -- a bit too much of it, perhaps. The narrative swings between several characters, but the whole thing is conveyed in dialect which I found very very difficult to read. It was actually pretty hard at times to tell who was who or indeed what was going on, though there are some great characters -- I particularly liked Maggie Koderer, Tommy's girlfriend, who comes from a good home but has fallen completely in love with horses and the rough life she has to lead to stay with them and with Tommy. Here's how she thinks about him one day when he has lost a lot of money on a bet gone wrong:
She had a sense that his kingly pride would suffer no abridgement. It was a complete world but it was a flat world too -- one pure unmitigated plain of being, all the way to the edge, where you fell off. Then it was all void, all menace. He had a beautiful, feline walk, spare, athletic, no cowboy loose-jointedness about it, but there was something odd about his hands. They curled backwards behind his wrists, hiding themselves, as if they knew they were not to be trusted. They knew how to do many things, or rather they knew how to do one thing, how to tame animals, but they did this from a whole forest of angles, and always on sufferance, for under their gentleness was threat.
Clearly this is a novel that repays very careful reading, and if you are prepared to do that you will find some wonderfully crafted prose -- poetic, really, though I dislike using that term to talk about novels because it threatens to sound too elitist and unattractive. Will it make the shortlist? I think it's possible -- it's already a National Book Award winner and has obvious class.
So -- bye bye 21st century. I'm off to Virago and Persephone and Muriel Spark.