Summertime by J M Coetzee #manbooker

In around twenty-five minutes we'll know the 2009 Man Booker winner, so I thought it would be well to get my last shortlist review up before then, event though thus far I've posted in reading order.

Summertime is a novel that operates on many levels. At its most simple, it's an account of a specific period in a man's life, told from five different points of view. It gets more complicated as we make the connections between the 'fictional character' and the author; the author apparently refers to the book as an 'autre biography'. Perhaps at its deepest and most intellectual level it's a novel about writing, about creation and creativity, about truth and about the fiction that is inherently tied up with, and inextricable from, life.

As such, it's incredibly difficult to review, because my response to this book is, in many ways, inarticulable!

At its story level, it's somewhat unclear why this man has been written about – he's portrayed as socially inept, callous and aloof – but he is described as an award winning novelist in the latter half of the book. The story level points an accusatory and scrutinising finger at our collective obsession with probing the creator of a work of art as though they are an engine, as though we are trying to understand how such work can be created. Despite the novel being about the fictitious John, the five perspectives do not make a three dimensional picture and we actually learn more about the five characters that describe him. The 'reporters' are an interesting bunch – though each one seems to hold such a fixed opinion of themselves that they become caricatures.

Summertime is deftly put together and is exceptionally crafty – I felt, rather uncomfortably, as though I were being led by the nose through a set of responses or inferences. I 'tackled' the book in a structured way, making notes at the end of each report – and the book seemed designed to trip me up. I would make a notes in my own hand at the end of a section, and the comment, or its sentiment was then echoed, in print, in the proceeding section. The effect this had on me was one I can only imagine to be like discombobulating…

To summarise, it feels a little fempty to review this book, because my response has either been mapped out and elicited in a very deliberate way, or else it doesn't matter. Still, in the spirit of bloody-mindedness, if you give yourself a clear head to read this book, you will be rewarded. For all the conflicted feelings I have about it, it certainly exercised the grey matter.

An extract from an interview with Simon Mawer #manbooker

The Glass Room is your eighth novel and you've also written two non-fiction titles. Does writing fiction come more easily to you?

Quite the contrary. I find non fiction easy and fiction monstrously difficult. But I have no desire to write non fiction and be bound by the limits that a subject imposes. In this respect any work of non fiction is a rather hum-drum, circumscribed affair: you always know what you must write about, even though you may not yet have the exact words. Quite the opposite of a novel. When writing a novel, particularly when starting, each page is entirely blank, empty not only of words but also of ideas. The terror of the blank page, but also the thrill. It's like living a human life in miniature: initially the possibilities are endless, just as a child's potentialities may seem limitless. But as you progress through the book you make choices, shut off possibilities, impose limits and restrictions, just as you do in life. And finally all that is left is the end. Perhaps you might conclude with a flourish but the whole point has been getting there, just as the whole point of a life is in the living of it, rather than the dying. It is given to few to write a great novel, just as it is given to few to live a great life. But it must be worth trying.

Oh my – I think this man is simply wonderful.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters #manbooker

Fortunately, this is my first encounter with Sarah Waters, so I didn't have high expectations like many other people whose blogs I've read!

The Little Stranger is set in post-WWII Warwickshire, and focuses on Hundreds Hall, a formerly grand mansion house. Our protagonist is a Doctor with working class roots, whose mother once served at Hundreds Hall. By chance, the Doctor comes into contact with the three remaining Ayreses, resident at the Hall and trusted with its upkeep. The trio, mother with son and daughter, soon develop a relationship with the Doctor, albeit at the appropriate arms length for their respective 'stations'. The Doctor becomes very fond of the odd family, who seem barely able to maintain the Hall, and he becomes entangled in both the Hall and the family's life. Strange things start to occur, and the family's mettle is tested against the Hall.

I was absolutely terrified by The Little Stranger. The narrative is handled so delicately as to produce exquisite suspense, which left me walking a fine line between wanting to close the book to cast off the fear, and being compelled to keep reading. Waters is a masterful author, allowing the reader to be present at each odd report, each strange phenomenon, each inexplicable event. Our narrator, the Doctor, gives his account in first person and is almost bloody minded – both that the Hall is a wonderful place that ought to be saved and resurected to its former glory, and that the 'supernatural' is nothing more than individual neuroses. The Doctor's adamance in the face of compelling and inexplicable phenomena means that as the climax approaches and the Doctor starts to question himself, the reader has a palpable sense of internal conflict and the sickening sensation of being out of control.

It's a really interesting take on the 'ghost story' without exercising so much probity that it flattens the genre. Even though it's 499 pages long, the novel is engaging and compelling throughout, as it builds a fantastic sense of place and time.

What prevented this being a flawless novel was the weak romance, which wasn't difficult to understand, but was difficult to buy in to. I'm really looking forward to reading more Sarah Waters – suggestions welcome about where to start!

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds #manbooker

In comparison with other Man Booker 2009 novels, this one is fairly lightweight in length, though it masks decidedly heavy content. The novel is centred around a private asylum for residents with mental health problems, and here we encounter the asylum's Doctor Matthew Allen, a number of residents (most notably poet John Clare), members of the Doctor's family and poet Alfred Tennyson, a newly arrived village resident.

The book is lyrical, and, parts of it at least, resemble extended poems. There's a surreal quality to the passages about John Clare, as he battles with delusions, a craving for the outdoors and a crisis of identity. It's a book that easily transports the reader into various states of mind, especially those that typify the condition we would normally associate with poets and those of pubescent girls.

Though there is a narrative thread of sorts, there's a sense that the novel doesn't set out to tell a story – the action is fragmented and obscure – it rather seems to give an impression of certain characters, allowing the reader to inhabit them for a little while. Allen's story seems to vie with Clare's as the driver for the book, and for me, it was the actions of Allen that were the most interesting.

The book could easily have been bogged down by the historical weight of the characters, but it successfully side-steps that trap to offer something else. The novel is certainly creative; a lyrical derivation from fact, but there just wasn't enough to it for it to grip me.

The Wilderness by Samatha Harvey #manbooker

Jake is a widower and a retired architect living in Lincolnshire. He has Alzheimers, so we can't actually be sure that he's a widower, or otherwise bereaved. In The Wilderness, we encounter Jake as an impermanent glue that holds fragments of story together, and we encounter his family and loved ones through these fragments.

The Wilderness gives an impression of Alzheimers as a no-man's land: a place where there is a forever sliding scale between fiction and fact, a scale that pitches dramatically from this side to that; a place where black holes appear from nowhere, swallowing details – swallowing people and inventing others, throwing holes into the middle of stories, and shifting the order of things; it's a place where chronolgy and relations become fluid and changeable.

The Wilderness was mesmorising and frustrating in equal measure. Jake reports significants events and relates people through a series of 'reminiscences', though the same people and events keep appearing in different guises. The characters, that give the impression of being well rounded, become flattened and two dimensional in their portrayal as recurring motifs. The notion of boiling something down to its essence is played with very successfully, and Jake lays out his life as in a family album – select images, with fragments of story attached – something that we all know changes with perspective and age.

To avoid sentimentalising the disease is a remarkable achievement, and the result is a stunningly visual but cold book. It does ask a really interesting question about our emotional response to Alzheimers, and that is how can one grieve for something they don't know they have lost? Though I don't think The Wilderness is a classic, I do find the effect or recurring motifs haunting – and I can't forget Jake's daughter saying about the cherries: 'Jape, I want to pick them, Jape'.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel #manbooker

Wolf Hall’s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell: blacksmith’s son, cloth merchant, adviser to Cardinal Wolsley and eventually King Henry’s yes man. Set over the course of a few years (with a taster backstory) as Henry tries to divorce Catherine of Aragon and separate from Rome’s primacy, we follow Cromwell as he becomes the formidable player at court.

Each section of the book drives towards a significant moment in the story, expertly building the narrative to its culmination, and displaying exquisite plotting that maintains a level of pace and action throughout the 650 pages.

Though Cromwell is a man of few words, who becomes slightly more verbose as his staff increases, the author builds up a rich sense of a man with integrity, plain sense, confidence and elusive motivations. We follow Cromwell as he works his influence behind the scenes to achieve the King’s desire, learning something of his character in his exchanges both in a domestic setting with his family, and in court with numerous dignitaries. Yet for all the detail offered about his life and his actions, the man remains a mystery – an unknowable force that defies understanding, that no-one is sure of. It’s this unsurety, this fear of the unknown, that seems to be Cromwell’s greatest power.

Wolf Hall is engrossing for the picture it paints about the intricacies of Henry’s split from Rome, and the agency Cromwell exerts upon cracking the problem of fulfilling the monarch’s apparently conflicting desires. It’s an extraordinarily well-written novel, including both compelling characters and a fascinating historical perspective. I would unreservedly recommend it. This is quite an accolade from an historical fiction virgin! It deserves its place on the shortlist, and narrowly misses out on being my favourite of the shortlisted books.