This book should have been right up my alley: magical realism, Booker Prize winner, African folklore; it has it all. Yet somehow it just didn’t do it for me. A young African boy, Azaro, is continually being kidnapped by spirits, but it doesn’t seem to hurt him, and he easily escapes. His parents try to scratch out a living. His mum earns a pittance as a street vendor, and his dad carries heavy sacks as a day laborer. His dad also is an unsuccessful prize fighter. The first time any of this is described is entertaining, but by the third or fourth time, it is merely repetitive. Nothing new is added. At the end of the book all the character are unchanged.
I read it in my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners, and I wish they had chosen Paddy Doyle’s The Van instead.
Unlike some Booker Prize winners, this book is neither heavy nor self-indulgent. It is light and funny. It chronicles the lives of several individuals inhabiting barges along the banks of the Thames. Most of them are hardly seaworthy. Such could be said of their inhabitants, most of whom are hanging on teeth and toenails.
I don’t usually like children in fiction. ‘Plot moppets,’ Red-Headed Girl calls them. I especially dislike fictional children who lisp. Well, the feral children of this novel, hold their own. Skipping school to rummage along the mudflats for anything they can turn to cash, they are the centerpiece of this novel. I loved them.
In fact, I loved all the characters. Drawn to a way of life they can’t explain, they live their lives on the margins of society.
This is a difficult book, as are all Murdoch’s novels. In it, we follow Charles Arrowby as he comes to terms with many men and women from his past, as well as his career in the theater. He is not an attractive character, being entirely self-centered. His world is rocked when he encounters his first love, Hartley, who coincidentally lives near where he has bought a house by the sea to live in while retired.
He is unable to see or hear Hartley as she is now, not the girl he loved in his youth. Ultimately, he kidnaps her but returns her to her husband. She tells him repeatedly that she wants to return home to her husband, but he has convinced himself that he has freed her, even as he holds her captive. She finally escapes him by leaving the country.
Along the way we meet different characters from his past, until the house is quite crowded. When Arrowby finally shakes them, he is left alone, to come to terms with who he is and the people he has hurt.
I am up to 1976 in my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners.
This is not a book I would ever have chosen to read, but I’m glad I did. It is the story of one young man’s efforts to ‘better himself,’ largely to the pressure put upon him by his father, a miner, who wants something else for his son. The result is a young man who is not at home in his world.
The novel is very much about class. The protagonist cannot be content in his father’s world of working in a mine, living in housing provided for him and his family. But he is not at home in the middle class, either. The world of teaching is wrong for him; the world of physical labor is closed to him. As a result, he a restless spirit doomed to be unhappy wherever he is.
I think he should move to America.